Leaving behind the unspoiled countryside of New Zealand we knew things would be different in Australia. But how different, we had no idea.
As budget travelers (perhaps a step above your typical backpacker and a flight of stairs below holidaymakers and vacationers), we’ve found ourselves, up until now, in a pretty good spot. Traveling through South America we enjoyed meager breakfasts followed by afternoon jaunts to corner cafes and sumptuous dinners out on the town. We could afford private, clean (albeit modest) rooms at budget hotels, family-run B&B’s and hostels.
In Fiji and New Zealand we were pushed a bit on these norms and had to make some minor changes: cooking in from time to time, restricting our café and alcohol intake a bit and opting for accommodation with shared bathrooms. Australia, however, turned out to be a whole different playing field.
Facing the Music
Nothing could have prepared us for how expensive Australia is. I’ve spent some time in some of the more expensive cities in the world, like Paris, London and New York City, and let me tell you: Australia (not just cosmopolitan Sydney) is right up there in terms of cost.
With the Australian dollar near one to one with the US dollar, we’re paying top prices for even the most basic goods. Here’s a look at the price tags you’ll find on some daily necessities in Australia:
- $4 for a cup of coffee
- $5 for a loaf of bread
- $9 for a box of cereal
- $15 for a six pack of beer
- $17 for a movie ticket
With these costs, you wouldn’t be surprised to hear that budget accommodation (and I’m talking low-end, backpacker hostels, people) will cost you around $80-$120 for a private room and $60-$80 for two beds in a shared dorm. Yes, absolutely outrageous.
How? Why? After continuing to ask myself these same questions, I got down to the bottom of it. Australians are making big bucks. Yep, minimum wage is a whopping $14.31. That means a day of flipping hamburgers at a Sydney McDonald’s or picking fruit in the farms surrounding Melbourne puts a near $150 bucks in your pocket. Score a more prestigious job manning the espresso machine behind the counter and you’re darn near $200 bucks for a day’s work. To put that in perspective, that’s nearly $40-50K per year on a minimum wage job!
What does this do to someone like us, the budget traveler? It has prices skyrocketing, making it close to impossible to fully enjoy the beauty of the country without constantly struggling to keep your budget intact. We could literally feel our wallet getting lighter as the day wore on and realized we needed to re-strategize and fast.
Stretching Aussie Travel Dollars
Here are a few of the tips we’ve picked up along the way and some ideas for those looking to enjoy Australia without busting the budget:
Say No to Organized Fun: Australian tourist agencies are talented stalkers. They will literally hunt you down on the streets and try to convince you the only way to experience Australia is through organized tours. Heavily promoted at most hostels, most backpackers seem to fall into this trap, but stay away from these and you’ll avoid putting a huge dent in your budget. Want to see the Whitsundays, Fraser Island, the Blue Mountains? In most cases you can do it on your own and for much cheaper. Do your homework, rent a car, get your own group together at your hostel and weigh your options heavily before jumping on one of these tours.
Small Splurges: Even when money is tight, don’t give up on those little things that make you happy while traveling. If it’s an afternoon cup of coffee, a scoop of gelato or an ice cold pint at the corner pub that gets you excited, don’t go without. We began our time in Australia forgoing these small things to try to stay on budget and realized without the small pick-me-ups throughout the day we were left feeling bitter and frustrated. Find other ways to cut corners, but don’t sweat the small stuff.
Surf on Someone Else‘s Dime: Internet in Australia is very pricey with most places charging $4-6 an hour. There’s even a monopoly on places with WiFi that make you pay into a public network for use. Keep your eyes, peeled, however, for the gazillion travel agencies lining the streets. They offer free internet to tourists (to encourage you to book tours with them). Makes for a great place to stop in to catch up on email and get some free travel advice at the same time. Check out Peter Pan, Tribal Travel and Wicked Travel agencies in nearly every city in Australia.
Food on the Cheap: It’s no surprise eating out is the biggest way to bust your budget. In fact in Australia, even mediocre restaurants are charging $20-30 a plate. Cooking in is obviously the way to go, but even grocery shopping can be a budget breaker. Good news: Most cities in Australia have some really great food markets. Here you’ll find really fresh produce (and local food treasures you didn’t even know existed!) for nearly a third of the price you find in grocery stores. Head to the market in the afternoon to get the best prices (prices drop dramatically after the midday rush) or consider hitting up grocery stores for late night specials. After 7 p.m. you’ll see they often drop their prices on meats and produce, too, to get rid of fresh food before the day’s end.
Reassess Your Budget: We had a set idea of how much money we’d like to spend each day/week to make our 12-14 months of traveling a reality. We were right on target for our first four months and then we hit the wall: Australia. Instead of spending our days making big sacrifices to stay on track (i.e. staying in dirty, unpleasant hostels that more resembled frat houses) and being irritated we couldn’t afford to do much, we came to accept the fact we needed to give our Australia budget a little more leeway. We decided we would up the ante, adding a bit more to our daily budget, and vow to cut back when we hit cheaper places like India.
After two weeks into our month in Australia, we’ve learned how to make the most of a not so budget-friendly destination. We now better understand the importance of being flexible, realizing when to give in a little and when to pull back on the reins. We recognize our dollar may not take us as far as it once did, but we’ve come to realize those rare, authentic experiences are the ones that don’t come with a price tag. And along the way we’re discovering these are the challenges that push us to savor the daily adventure each day brings and make our journey all the worthwhile.