Last Updated on May 29, 2022 by Nellie Huang
Whether you’re driving along the stunning coasts or deep into the Outback, road trips in Australia will be sure to leave you in awe.
I’ve traveled on four wheels all over Australia, from the rugged Top End all the way to Tasmania’s east coast, and somewhere between the rural west coast and the cosmopolitan east coast. There’s no better way to explore Australia than on a road trip around the country. Experience the country’s wide open spaces and take in all of its magnificent natural landscapes — Australia is a country made for road trips.
Instead of flying from one part of Australia to another and missing everything in between, the journey becomes just as meaningful as the destination. One of the best travel quotes of all time goes like this, “it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey”.
From epic self-drive holidays and 4WD adventures, Australian road trips range in length, difficulty and cover all types of terrain. Driving in Australia is easy on most routes but you’ll need to be prepared for the long distances, wildlife, traffic rules, and Outback roads you might need to traverse. Buckle up and make sure you are well prepared with these Australia road trip tips.
Table of Contents
- Best Road Trips in Australia
- Driving Distances in Australia
- Traffic Rules in Australia
- Challenges of Driving in Australia
- Budgeting for Your Road Trip in Australia
How to Do Road Trips in Australia
First, you’ll need a valid driver’s license. International travelers can drive in Australia with a foreign license for three months. If your licence is not in English, you need to get an International Driving Permit from the Automobile Association in your home country before arriving in Australia.
For those who want to save even more money and enjoy camping in the Outback, you can buy a reliable trailer to tow with the vehicle. Of course if you live in Australia or plan to travel here for a few months, this would be the best choice for you. Buying a car and trailer is usually cheaper than buying an actual camper van. Gumtree is a good website to source for second hand trailers or caravans.
But nothing beats driving a camper van in Australia. Renting a camper van can save you lots of money on accommodation, and it’s a comfortable and fun way to do a road trip. I’ve driven three different Britz camper vans in Australia, and love the experience. I highly recommend booking a small 4WD Landcruiser camper which is rugged enough for all terrain, yet small enough to go anywhere you want without consuming too much petrol.
When to Go on A Road Trip in Australia
Australia is a huge country, so this really depends on which part of the country you’re planning to drive. Contrary to most people’s misconception, it’s not always sunny and warm in Australia. Check the season in the area you’re visiting before you start planning your road trip. Keep in mind that Australia is in the southern hemisphere so the seasons are reversed to what most of us in the northern hemisphere are used to.
In general, these are the best seasons to visit each state in Australia (with their capitals in brackets):
- New South Wales (Sydney) —October to April.
- Northern Territory (Darwin) — June to October, as this state falls in the tropics and the wet season from December to March is best avoided.
- South Australia (Adelaide) — Year round, it only gets chilly in the subtropical state from June to July.
- Tasmania (Hobart) — November to March, as this is the southernmost state of Australia.
- Queensland (Brisbane) — October to April.
- Western Australia (Perth) — October to April.
- Victoria (Melbourne) — October to April for reasonably agreeable weather on the Great Ocean Road.
Best Road Trips in Australia
Of the 120 countries that I’ve been, Australia has to be one of the most diverse. The island/continent is divided into eight different states, all of which have different types of environment and terrain. It’ll take months or years to see the whole country, so I’d recommend picking out one or two of the best road trips if you’re short on time.
1. The Great Ocean Road: Melbourne to Warrnambool
Australia’s most iconic road trip is undoubtedly the Great Ocean Road. This drive along the South Coast is a must-do for visitors to Australia. If you are short on time and only have few days to spare, then make it this trip. 3-5 days is a good amount of time to do the road trip from Melbourne without missing out.
Distance: 346km | Duration: 3-5 day
2. City to City: Sydney to Melbourne
This epic Australian road trip takes you on a coastal journey from Sydney in New South Wales, to Melbourne in Victoria. Driving on the Grand Pacific Coast Highway is a highlight of Australia’s East Coast and it’s a great way to get from one major city to the next. With natural rainforests, breathtaking coastal views, whale watching and relaxed seaside towns, this is one chilled out road trip you won’t want to end.
Distance: 878km | Duration: 5-7 days
3. Red Centre Way: Alice Springs to Uluru
My absolute favorite part of Australia is the Red Centre. This is the Outback at its best and it’s the very heart of the country. Instead of taking the Stuart Highway between Alice Springs and Uluru, choose the scenic route along the Red Centre Way to travel through red desert sands, lush valleys, towering gorges and a number of waterholes. The drive starts from Alice Springs and makes its way on a loop around the Tjoritja / West MacDonnell Ranges, Kings Canyon and Uluru/ Kata Kjuta National Park. Camping in the Red Centre was easily my favourite experience in Australia.
Distance: 1135km | Duration: 6-8 days
4. The Explorer Way: Alice Springs to Adelaide
If you’re looking to extend your journey from the Red Centre, this is another great road trip that brings you to South Australia. The Explorer Way actually starts in Australia’s top end (Darwin) and stretches all the way to the far south (Adelaide), cutting through the country vertically crossing swathes of desert and some of the most remote areas of Australia. Driving from Alice Springs to Adelaide, we saw the Red Centre’s rugged landscape transform into lush green subtropical terrain.
Distance: 1520km | Duration: 4-6 days
5. West Coast Adventure: Perth to Darwin
This is definitely one of the more adventurous road trips in Australia, as there is a lot of ground to cover and many things to see! This trip shows a very different side to Australia as compared to the above. Some of the highlights include frolicking in the sand of the Pinnacles Desert, spotting dolphins at Shark Bay, visiting one of the most spectacular beaches in Australia, Ningaloo Reef, and hiking in Katherine Gorge at Nitmiluk.
Distance: 4,104km | Duration: 21 days
Driving Distances in Australia
As you can tell by now, Australia is a BIG country and driving distances can be long. Sydney and Melbourne may not look too far from each other on the map, but they are! There’s 878km between them and taking anything less than 5 days to cover that distance would be too much of a rush.
I know how easy it is to plan a packed itinerary and try to drive as much as possible per day, but remind yourself that you are in Australia to explore and experience. Take your time and plan to make lots of stops in order to see the country at a leisurely pace.
Keep in mind that the urbanised towns in Australia are concentrated along the coast, so you’ll often be driving along large swathes of wilderness with limited access to fuel, food and water. Make sure to keep your vehicle fully stocked with food and water, and always fill up your fuel tank when you see a petrol kiosk. While driving from Alice Springs to Adelaide on the Explorer Way, we ran out of petrol and had to hitchhike to the nearest petrol kiosk. Thank goodness of kind people who helped us out!
Traffic Rules in Australia
In Australia, they drive on the left-hand side of the road and use the metric system of distances and speeds. Note that Australian vehicles are right-hand drive vehicles, with automatic transmission popular. Manual transmission (stick shift) is widely available, but make sure to ask for it when hiring a car.
Speed limits are clearly signposted everywhere in Australia. A default 50km/h speed limit applies in urban areas with street lights. The speed limit outside the urban areas varies between states. The default speed limit is 100km/h in Victoria, Tasmania, New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia. In Western Australia and the Northern Territory the default speed limit is 110km/h and in the Northern Territory it can be up to 130km/h on major highways.
Rest areas are located every 80-100 kilometres (49-62 miles) on main highways and roads for people to pull over and rest when needed. For those traveling with kids, be aware that children and babies must be restrained in an approved car seat or booster seat, in some states up to 7 years old. Most car rental companies can provide baby seats for an extra cost.
Challenges of Driving in Australia
My husband and I found driving in Australia to be easy, comfortable and relatively stress-free. We didn’t encounter any major issues (besides that time when we ran out of petrol) and our entire Australia trip ran smoothly. That said, we were fully aware of one big danger that Australian roads pose: wildlife!
Australian wildlife is everywhere and these animals seem to love the road especially at night. Once it starts to get dark, animals are drawn to car lights and will jump on purpose onto the road. The best thing you can do is to avoid driving when it’s dark. Start early and find a comfortable parking spot before it gets dark to relax and enjoy the night skies.
Budgeting for Your Road Trip in Australia
The average price for petrol in Australia is currently 1.36 Australian Dollar (US$1) per litre. Don’t underestimate the Outback – it can go up to AU$1.75/litre in the remote areas and you won’t have much of a choice with limited petrol stations around. Similarly petrol prices are higher in the metropolitan area, so be sure to fill up your tank before entering a major city.
Fuel cost is something you can’t avoid on road trips, but there are some ways to keep the cost to a minimum. For instance, keep your tires inflated, oil fresh and engine tuned for better mileage. Use a smartphone app like GasBuddy to find the best prices in your area. Try to walk whenever you can and avoid using the vehicle in cities.
Thankfully there are not that many toll roads in Australia; they are mainly found in the metropolitan areas of big cities like Sydney and Melbourne. Stick to the backcountry and plan your journeys ahead, and you should be able to breeze through the roads without paying any toll. Most of the toll fees vary from AU$4 to $11, depending on the size of your vehicle and location.
If you don’t have an electronic tag, be sure to buy a temporary pass before you drive on a toll road (although you are given up to 72 hours to purchase a pass after passing a toll road). Unpaid toll fees can result in hefty fines. Car rental companies have your credit card details, so rest assured they’ll deduct that from your bill!
Food and drinks
Sadly food prices in Australia are quite high. We often bought food from grocery stores or supermarkets, rather than eating out, as it was too expensive to dine at restaurants everyday. Most camper vans are equipped with cooking facilities and utensils, so make the most out of it! Look out for big supermarket chains (like Aldi or Woolworths) where prices are the lowest and always stock up on snacks to avoid splurging at restaurants.
In big cities like Sydney and Melbourne, it’s easier to find cheaper eats like Chinese take-out, pizzas or fast food. The more remote places are, the more expensive food and petrol will be. During our road trip in Australia, we found the Red Centre to be the most expensive for food.
Budget traveler will be happy to know that it is not illegal to pull up at the roadside rest areas and spend the night in your camper van or trailer. Some of these rest areas even have tables, shelters, barbecues, chemical toilets and even solar showers.
But you’ll probably find yourself parking at campsites more often than not. Trailers and camper vans often need to be plugged in if you want to use electricity. Plus, how long can you go without showering? Many of these campsites also have fully equipped kitchens and dining areas for socialising.
Campsites usually cost between AU$15 and $50 per lot, per night depending on location and facilities. There are basic campsites with just electricity and showers, but there also camping parks with swimming pools and kids’ playground. Find A Camp is a great website to find a camping spot or caravan park in Australia.
Are you planning a road trip to Australia? Let me know if you have any questions!
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