Australia is a long way from the rest of the world, but when backpackers make the effort to fly Down Under, they’ve got a trove of travel treasures to dive into. With beautiful beaches, otherworldly outback and spectacular cities to explore, this diverse country is a dream backpacking destination.
The backpacker scene
No backpacker flies halfway around the world to visit the world’s sixth largest nation to only spend a week or two looking around, so Australia is the sort of place that people quit their job and spend their life savings to travel to. Backpackers tend to spend many months Down Under on an exotic trip of a lifetime, tackling coastal road trips like the Great Ocean Road and the well-worn path from Sydney to Cairns, bucket list tours of the Great Barrier Reef and Uluru in the Red Centre, and adrenaline-fuelled adventures like learning to surf or skydiving over the beach. Plenty also use Australia for a little R&R after traipsing their way through the hustle and bustle of Southeast Asia.
Aussie hostels are full of budget travellers from every corner of the globe, all fond of Australia’s sunshine and outdoor lifestyle, and most keen on a party, too. The majority come from big European countries like Britain and Ireland, Germany, France and Italy as well as the United States and Canada, plus there are growing numbers of independent travellers from nearby Asian countries, particularly China. Working holidaymakers are another unique aspect of Australia’s backpacker scene — visitors from some countries can apply for the right to work and holiday for up to a year, and extend that visa by another year if they work on a farm for three months, which spreads backpackers all throughout the countryside.
Making the most of it
Mix with the locals
Australian people are famously friendly, so don’t be afraid to say g’day. The accent might be a little tricky to decipher and the slang words are even more difficult to navigate, but Aussies are laidback, love a laugh, and leap at the chance to welcome visitors to their country.
Take your time
Australia is huge — roughly the size of Europe, in fact — so you’re not going to see it all in a whistle-stop couple of weeks. Do your homework, prepare a plan, and don’t get too ambitious — the distance between Sydney on the East Coast to Perth on the West Coast (3,300km) is about the same as Madrid to Moscow, and you wouldn’t expect to see everything from Spain to Russia in a quick Euro trip.
Check the weather forecast
The size of the country also means there’s huge diversity in the climate, from the wet tropics up north to the bone dry Red Centre and chilly southern areas. Australia is blessed with a warmer-than-average climate but not everywhere is hot and sunny — just wait until you’ve experienced Melbourne’s infamous ‘four seasons in one day’ weather!
Australia is a very safe country to visit. Of course, backpackers — especially solo travellers — should take sensible precautions, but crime rates are extremely low and the locals are tolerant and welcoming to foreign visitors. The biggest danger to travellers in Australia? Mother Nature. Natural disasters like bushfires and cyclones are relatively common, and the sun, sea and desert all pose their own risks.
All Aussies learn sun safety at a very early age, but backpackers often fail to heed the ‘slip-slop-slap’ message. UV radiation is much more intense in Australian than it is in other parts of the world — just ask all the Irish backpackers whose backs are as red as their hair after their first day sun-baking at Bondi — so slather on the sunscreen if you want to avoid a holiday-ruining burn.
The sun isn’t the only hazard at the beach, with powerful riptides regularly surprising inexperienced swimmers. Stay safe by swimming between the red and yellow flags, which designate the part of the beach being patrolled by surf lifesavers. Also heed any warnings about jellyfish in tropical northern Australia, or sharks all around the country.
The ancient landscapes of the Australian outback also present a unique challenge. The safest option is to jump on a tour and listen to your guide, but if you want to tackle the terrain yourself, do your preparation, source a sturdy 4WD, pack ample supplies, and take care of the wildlife — especially swimming spots, which can be crawling with crocs up north.
Food and accommodation
For travellers who tread the Southeast Asian backpacker trail before arriving in Australia, the price of food might come as a shock — even budget cafes and restaurants charge at least $15-20 for a meal. That said, you get what you pay for — Aussies cities abound with top-drawer eateries that cover every cuisine on the map, particularly Italian, Indian, Chinese, Southeast Asian and modern Australian. Same deal with bars — at $6-8 for a drink in a regular pub and even more in a nightclub, the cost of nights out can stack up. Backpackers looking to stretch their savings will quickly learn that a meal cooked in the hostel kitchen and a box of ‘goon’ (cask wine) in the common room is the more budget-friendly dinner plan.
As for accommodation, backpacker hostels are the way to go, with a bed in a shared dorm room typically priced around the $30 mark. Backpacker hubs like Sydney, Melbourne, Byron Bay and Cairns are all brimming with dozens of quality hostels that provide a safe, comfortable and affordable place to stay for budget travellers.
Australians love a beer, so the pub is a great place to rub shoulders with the locals — grab a schooner and sit at the bar long enough and you’ll be certain to make some new mates. Sport is another powerful social hub, and offers travellers a great insight into Australian culture as well.
Want to meet fellow backpackers? Nothing beats the hostel common room. Good hostels also organise daily activities — events like pub crawls, themed dinners, trivia nights, barbecues and walking tours — where you can compare notes on your trip of a lifetime. Organised tours, such as Great Barrier Reef snorkelling cruises or multi-day expeditions through the Northern Territory, are also a great way to meet people.
Money, money, money
Your wallet will be filled with Australian dollars, abbreviated with a dollar sign ($) and occasionally distinguished from US dollars as A$, AU$ or AUD. One Australian dollar is worth around 80 US cents. Fun fact: Australia became the first country on earth to use plastic polymer banknotes in 1988, but you don’t really need them these days — every cafe, restaurant, bar and hostel accepts credit cards.
1 meal ($15-$20USD)
1 beer ($5-6USD)
1 night at a backpacker hostel ($20-30USD)
1 inner-city train trip in Sydney or Melbourne ($2-3USD)
1 packet of paracetamol ($3-4USD)
1 ticket to a game of footy ($20-25USD)
Where to go
Sydney: Most visitors to Australia land in Sydney, and the Harbour City is a beautiful introduction to the country. From the glittering harbour and string of stunning city beaches to a sophisticated cultural scene and landmarks like the Opera House and Harbour Bridge, you could spend weeks seeing everything that Australia’s biggest metropolis has to offer.
Yamba: The road trip up the sandy East Coast is Australia’s most well-worn backpacker route, and while most budget travellers make a beeline for Byron Bay, there’s a tiny beach town a tick further south that’s every bit as charming. Yamba offers the same laidback seaside vibe Byron is famous for, minus the crowds.
Cairns: The last stop on that epic road trip up the coast is the tropical city of Cairns, wedged between the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest. Cruises, beaches, day trips, animal experiences, snorkelling tours, bush walks, skydives … Cairns is a backpacking Mecca that serves as the gateway to Australia’s legendary tropics.
Western Australia: Four or five hours’ flight from Sydney or Melbourne, Perth is a little out of the way — but backpackers who go west will be richly rewarded. Explore the city itself before soaking up some history in the picturesque port of Fremantle, catch the ferry to the idyllic Rottnest Island, road trip up north to swim with whale sharks and ride camels along the coast, or head down south for world-class wineries and beaches.
Darwin: This place is truly unlike anywhere else on earth. The Northern Territory capital is your launchpad to explore the Top End’s ancient, rugged, crocodile-infested landscapes, and the nightlife in the city itself is even wilder.
Bucket list experiences
Climb the Sydney Harbour Bridge: Images of Australia don’t get any more iconic than the ‘Coathanger’, and visitors can scale the arch for a panoramic view of the Harbour City from 134m above the water. The full BridgeClimb experience costs more than $300 but it’s worth every cent for those 360-degree views.
Dive the Great Barrier Reef: Live out your own sequel to Finding Nemo at the largest coral reef in the world. Explore this 2,300km marvel beneath the warm tropical water, where you can get up close and personal with colourful coral formations and the even more vibrant marine life.
Catch the sunset at Uluru: ‘The Rock’ is the beating heart of the continent, a site that’s sacred to Indigenous Australian people and a deeply spiritual experience for visitors, too. This hulking sandstone monolith glows ochre-red at sunset, which is the best time to visit Uluru by car, foot, camel, hot-air balloon or even Harley Davidson. Respect Indigenous wishes and don’t climb it, though.