Planning A Road Trip In Australia: Essential Tips For First Timers

Australia is vast – the only country in the world that’s also a continent. One of the best ways to truly discover Australia is by road, but how do you tackle such a large country?

What type of vehicle do you need? How far should you travel in a day, and what sort of safety precautions should you be aware of when setting out on your trip?

Understandably, you need to answer many questions before you even book your airline tickets to Australia. In this guide to road-tripping Australia, we’re going to share everything our team has learnt from decades of driving the epic landscapes Downunder.

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The Absolute Basics of Road Tripping Australia

Before we dive into the planning details, these are the headlines you need to know about road-tripping in Australia if you are coming from overseas:

  • Cars in Australia drive on the left side of the road, with the steering wheel on the right.
  • Speed limits are in kilometres per hour – and are strictly enforced via speed camera.
  • Cars, campervans, and caravans are all popular modes of transport for road-tripping in Australia.
  • Distances can be vast; get a good grip on driving distances, road conditions and fuel stops before plotting out your Australian road trip itinerary.
  • Roads and freeways near major cities are in good condition and generally very well maintained; whilst hitting the outback, you will find unsealed roads and a lack of phone signal! be prepared for all sorts of driving conditions.

Now, on to the details to plan your dream trip Downunder!

Australian Seasons And When To Time Your Australian Road Trip

Whilst Australia may be commonly conceived as always hot and sunny, you must be prepared for many different microclimates, from snowy mountains to tropical forests and desert plains. Australia really has it all when it comes to diverse scenery and road trip experiences.

Visitors should primarily be aware that the northern half of Australia is subtropical and tropical; the southern half is more temperate and follows traditional seasons, just in reverse to the northern hemisphere – i.e. mid-January is peak summer in Australia, and July/August is mid-winter.

outback road in australia

Australian Climate

The southeast of Australia – broadly New South Wales, ACT, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania – and southern Western Australia experience the best weather from around October to April each year; the coldest winter months are June to August.

Anywhere north of the Tropic of Capricorn – much of Queensland, Northern Territory, and WA – you should expect a rainy season and a dry season rather than traditional seasons. The best time to visit Australia’s north is during the dry season, broadly from May to October.

Of particular importance to pay attention to when looking at the Australian climate:

  • Bushfires – primarily, these occur in the hottest summer months, November through March, but can happen at any time of year.
  • Flooding – unpredictable across the seasons and the country. Generally, the east coast is more susceptible, though you’ll find parts of the tropics can flood, leading to road closures in the wet season.
  • Cyclones – occurring only in the tropics, be on alert from November to April

School Holidays in Australia

These vary a little by state, but primarily schools in Australia operate with four terms and four school holidays.

  • Easter – normally 2 weeks, end of March/Early April
  • Winter – normally 2 weeks during July
  • Spring – normally 2 weeks in September
  • Summer – from mid-December to the end of January, 4 to 6 weeks

If you are planning to travel over any of the Australian school holidays, be aware that accommodation will book out faster, attractions will be much busier, and the roads will be heavier with traffic.

On the flip side, for road-tripping families, the school holidays mean a lot more festivals and events are on for families; Royal Shows and school holiday programs might be running to enhance your Aussie road trip.

Some other busier weekends/public holidays to be aware of

  • Australia Day – 26 January and surrounding weekend
  • Easter Weekend – Good Friday through Easter Monday Many get a 4-day break
  • ANZAC DAY – 25 April, may be added to a weekend or a day in lieu
  • AFL Grand Final – Vic only, a long weekend in late September
  • Melbourne Cup – another Vic public holiday where many will take advantage of a Spring long weekend on the road

What does busy mean? If you are looking for a spot in a caravan park or motel bookings in popular tourist locations, you need to book many months, if not a full year, in advance to ensure you’ll get what you want.

If you are ‘go with the flow’ road trippers, look to avoid any of the local school and public holidays, and you should be able to travel with relative day-to-day flexibility.

Nature Experiences in Australia

Some other seasonal events to be conscious of perhaps planning into your trip:

  • Whale Sharks in Exmouth – late March to August
  • Orcas near Esperance – January to March
  • Whale Watching on the Fraser Coast – July to October
  • Ski Season in the Snowy Mountains – June to October (peak July-August)

Ideal Timing For Your Aussie Road Trip

So, is there an ideal time of year to road trip Australia? If we had to pick just one time (assuming you have several months!), we’d suggest starting your trip in the southeast during the autumn months of March/April, then heading north to the tropics of Queensland or the Red Centre by July/August.

With limited time – e.g. the northern hemisphere summer break (June to August), we’d suggest starting in Sydney and road-tripping to tropical Far North Queensland or tackling the west coast, Perth up to Darwin.

Visiting over Christmas? Focus on the southern states, take the ferry over to Tassie, or roam around southern Western Australia.

an Australian outback road

Your Australian Road Trip Itinerary Plan

The number one most important question you must answer first is, how long do you have?

Understanding Distance

We can’t emphasise enough that driving distances in Australia are vast. Just as a very general guide, consider this:

  • Driving Melbourne to Sydney directly takes close to 10 hours
  • Sydney to Brisbane along the coast takes a further 10 hours
  • Brisbane to Cairns takes close to 20 hours
  • Melbourne to Perth direct is an incredible 37 hour drive across the Nullarbor Plain.

Simply put, even with a month in Australia, you’ll likely only manage to cover part of the country by road. With only 2-3 weeks, we’d focus your effort on just one coast of Australia if you don’t want to spend your entire journey in a car.

Which Route Should You Take?

It may be that you tackle part of your journey by road and partly by air, or one way the entire coast and fly back. There are so many combinations you can try!

Some of the most popular driving routes in Australia include:

  • Perth to Darwin along the west coast – catch the Pinnacles, Ningaloo Reef, Exmouth and Broome, then tackle the infamous Gibb River Road.
  • Sydney to Brisbane – capturing the highlights of the NSW north coast and some of the country’s most stunning beach towns through to the Gold Coast.
  • Brisbane to Cairns in Far North Queensland – perfect for beach lovers from the Sunshine Coast to the Whitsundays, sail out to the Great Barrier Reef and K’gari all the way up to the Daintree Rainforest and Port Douglas.
  • Melbourne to Sydney, via the capital Canberra or the scenic route Princess Highway for a coastal treat including Lakes Entrance, Bateman’s Bay and Jervis Bay.
  • Sydney to Uluru – for an epic outback adventure to Australia’s Red Centre, via Coober Pedy and Alice Springs.
  • Sydney to Byron Bay for the best of coastal New South Wales via Coffs Harbour and Port Macquarie.
  • The Big Lap – circumnavigating all of mainland Australia (allow at least 3-4 months for this epic road trip of a lifetime).
  • The Great Ocean Road in Victoria is one of the country’s most iconic scenic drives, including the Twelve Apostles – tackle this on an Adelaide to Melbourne road trip via the Flinders Ranges.
  • Take the Spirit of Tasmania and circumnavigate the island state of Tassie by road.
  • Plan your route to see the iconic “Big Things” trail in Australia!
The Great Ocean Road in Victoria is one of the country's most iconic drives

Whilst Australia has an increasingly good network of multi-lane highways, don’t be surprised if your journey still includes slow one-way traffic in parts and sporadic overtaking lanes.

We’d suggest taking a mix of highways and back roads is great for your Australian road trip – the Hume from Sydney to Melbourne, for example, is now a ‘speedy’ 9+ hour journey you can tackle in a day; but you still want to pull out to see some of the smaller towns on route to experience the true Australia.

Equipment For Road Tripping In Australia

Even if you are using a combination of motels and campsite cabins, there are still items you’ll want to pack for your great Australian road trip:

  • A good Esky (that’s Aussie for a cooler box!) is a must. This will keep your drinks and snacks fresh as your drive from one destination to the next. If you are not sure your accommodation will have a fridge, it’s well worth investing in a proper car fridge. They do use a little more energy but will save you a packet in the long run if you can self-cater most of your meals.
  • Your own reusable coffee cups, cutlery, and shopping bags. Australia is well up the curve relative to many countries on banning single-use plastics. If you are picnicking, definitely invest in some reusable items for all the family.
  • A good picnic rug – likewise, even if you’re not camping, you’ll be making plenty of roadside stops. Don’t always rely on tables and chairs; having your own ready-made picnic spot is essential!
  • A spare fuel can or “jerry can”, could be your lifesaver on a long-distance drive through the outback.

For those camping and caravanning, your road trip checklist is going to be much more extensive. Watch out for our Aussie camping checklist, coming soon!

Where to Buy Your Australian Road Trip Supplies

For those heading off-the-beaten park and perhaps combining motel stays with some camping, you can find an excellent selection of road-tripping gear in chain stores such as BCF and Tent World.

If your trip to Australia is relatively short and you don’t want to invest in such expensive gear yourself, you can try sites such as eBay and Gumtree for second-hand items.

What Sort of Vehicle Will You Need in Australia?

  • You can get around a lot of Australia in a standard 2WD, unless you’re very keen to include some off-roading.
  • Travelling as a family, you might find it better to opt for a little more space and a slightly larger vehicle like an SUV; you’ll get more luggage space and more range out of your tank.
  • On a longer Australian road trip, you may prefer to hire a campervan or caravan to save on accommodation costs.
Western Australia border crossing sign in 1986 with a silver XE falcon
Our Editor Keri’s first Nullarbor crossing in 1986!

Aussie Driving Tips and Tricks

To prepare you for hitting the road, here are some road trip rules that you may not be familiar with and laws that absolutely must be obeyed in Australia.

Vehicle Safety & Driving Laws

  • As we mentioned at the outset, you’ll be driving on the left, steering wheel on the right. If this is unfamiliar driving for you, remember the driver should always be in the centre of the road.
  • You will only need an International Driver’s Permit if your license is not in English.
  • Road speed limits in Australia are strictly enforced; penalties are steep for going even marginally over the limit. You may not get a ticket on your journey, but it’ll catch up with you weeks later via your rental company – plus an admin fee!
  • Be aware of your car’s range and tank size. You can drive quite economically on the open roads getting even a hundred or more kilometres out of a single tank than stop-start city driving, but don’t try and be overly brave; if in doubt, top up your tank!
  • Plan your daily route carefully around fuel stops. Whilst you’ll have few issues near the coast and big cities, once you hit the outback, take heed of warning signs about how far to the next roadhouse or petrol station.
  • There are toll roads only in New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland – predominantly around the major cities. When hiring a car, check if you are covered for these tolls or will need to pay them later. All toll roads in Australia are cashless and managed centrally with Linkt, making it much easier for interstate tourists to pay online.
  • Seatbelts are mandatory for the driver and all passengers in each state, though precise infant car seat rules vary by state – we have a more detailed guide to Australian car seat laws coming soon.
  • There are no border crossing points between states (unless we’re unfortunate enough to experience another pandemic!). You’ll likely only see a signpost that are crossing between states – of course, you should try to take these iconic photo ops!
  • Understand how to deal with overtaking lanes and road trains on country roads (B-doubles and B Triples can be in excess of 30 metres long!) Only ever overtake where there are white dashed lanes, and it is safe to do so.
a road train sign in australia
  • If you’re towing a caravan or in a motorhome, be mindful of other faster-moving vehicles behind you. It’s polite to use turnouts where available to let other vehicles pass.
  • Be mindful of driving at dusk. This is the time of day wildlife is most active, and trust us when we say hitting a kangaroo at 100km/hr is not going to end well for you or the ‘roo.

Road Side Assistance & Insurance

Should the worst happen during your journey, the major automobile clubs you can join in Australia for roadside assistance are:

  • NRMA – National Roads and Motorists’ Association
  • AANT – Automobile Association of the Northern Territory
  • RACQ – Royal Automobile Club of Queensland
  • RAA – Royal Automobile Association
  • RACT – Royal Automobile Club of Tasmania
  • RACV – Royal Automobile Club of Victoria

If you only took out standard insurance when hiring a car, make sure your travel insurance will cover you for any additional excess and other mishaps that may happen along your journey.

More Resources for Planning Your Australian Trips

In addition to motoring rules in Australia, here are a few more general tips you should be aware of planning your trip to Australia:

Respect the Environment

  • Ever wondered why customs checks are so strictly enforced? Australia has a unique ecosystem that needs protecting, so please, abide by the laws and don’t bring in any foreign plants, seeds or natural matters.
  • Don’t approach wildlife. Yes, it can be incredible when you sight your first kangaroo roadside, but please let them be.
  • Be alert but not afraid of Australia’s venomous wildlife. Spiders and snakes, in particular, are wildlife inhabitants (Planning your road trip with kids, check out the movie “Back to the Outback” if they’d like a finer appreciation of the loveable side of Aussie wildlife! )

Respect the Culture

  • Australian land belongs to the Indigenous people before the British first settled and colonised the country in 1788. This is a concept that’s being far more widely, albeit slowly, recognised in Australia’s tourism industry. The process has been gradual, but you will find many places have changed from anglicized names back to their traditional names, such as Uluru (Ayers Rock) and K’gari (Fraser Island).

Currency and Communications in Australia

  • English is the national language and is spoken everywhere.
  • The currency in Australia is the Australian Dollar – ATMs are plentiful, but the country is rapidly moving cashless so you can tap and pay or use your phone to pay in almost all locations – only in very small businesses/markets you may still need physical cash.
  • Once you are beyond Australia’s big cities or country towns, expect patchy phone coverage at best. You definitely want paper maps or download maps once you leave the populated coastal areas of Australia.
  • Only if you plan on heading to extremely remote parts of the country off-road and without any mobile phone (cell phone) coverage you’ll want to consider a satellite phone.

Start Planning Your Australian Adventure

Ready to start planning your epic family road trip Downunder? Here’s a bit more inspiration to help you on your way to planning the perfect Australian road trip:

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