Is there a more quintessential backpacking experience than road tripping in Australia? With working holiday visas available to twenty-somethings from dozens of countries around the world, finding the time to explore this vast country isn't often a problem. Buy a campervan and drive it up to the east coast, stopping whenever you feel like it: it's one of my travel highlights.
If you're from the United States, though, the actual driving can be a bit intimidating. In Australia, you drive on the left side of the road and the wheel is on the right side of the car. You likely won't be able to get any practice in before you leave, so the key is to try it on an uncrowded street in Australia.
Don't pick up a rental car at 8:00 a.m. in downtown Melbourne and learn how to drive on the left from the right in morning rush hour traffic; pick up the vehicle in the middle of the day and drive it around the Australian suburbs, which almost feel like a ghost town at this time of day. You'll pick it up in no time at all!
What’s the Speed Limit?
Contrary to some beliefs, speed limits in Australia are not pedal to the metal (well, there is the Nullarbor Desert). The Australian speed limit in cities is generally 60 kilometers per hour (35 mph), and the speed limit on Australian highways is generally 110 kph (68 mph).
How Old Do I Have to Be to Drive?
You must be 18 years old to drive a car in Australia. Australian teens go through a very rigorous driver training program, and drivers are pretty good here -- courteous and sensible, and hyperaware of the dangers of long-distance driving.
What Do I Need to Drive?
You need your own local (U.S.) driver's license to drive in Australia. If you're going to be in the country for more than six months, you can get an international driver's license before you leave home, or you can apply for a license in Australia when you're there. If you're going to rent a car, you will need your local, unexpired driver's license (that you've held for at least one year) and a credit card.
How Old Do I Have to Be to Rent a Car?
The minimum age for renting cars in Australia is essentially 21 years old, but drivers under 25 may have to pay an extra charge. Check with the car rental agency before you set your heart on a particular model -- if you're under 25, you may not be able or may have to pay extra, to rent vans (may be called 8 seaters or 12 seaters), for instance.
How Safe Is It to Drive?
Australia isn't the safest country to travel in, but it's not dangerous, either. If you haven't traveled long distances before by car, you'll have to take your driving seriously and make sure you don't drive when you're feeling overly tired.
Australia is a similar size to the United States, but unlike the U.S., there's a whole lot of nothing in the center of the country, and between the major cities, too. Prepare for long drives and don't be afraid to take regular breaks while you're moving from place to place. Be aware of kangaroos, which can sometimes jump out into the road in front of a car. If you see a kangaroo standing on the side of the road up ahead, break -- if it jumps out and you drive into it, you'll have just destroyed your car.
On top of that, the Outback is an unforgiving environment, and you'll need to be significantly prepared if you're planning on driving across the middle of the continent. Most important is food and water, and a spare tire, in case you run into any problems. It's also worth carrying a spare container of gasoline in case you run out, as gas stations are few and far between.
Can I Rent Motorhomes?
Yes -- motorhomes and vans (caravans or campervans when down under) are a great way to get around Australia if you have tons of time -- remember that Oz is huge; driving from Melbourne to Brisbane is like driving from Florida to Maine.
Wicked Campers offers bare-bones basic campervans (like a mattress in a cargo van) and meant for freewheelers and backpackers (they'll rent to travelers under 21), but do bear in mind that they have an absolutely terrible reputation thanks to the offensive slogans they paint on the side of their campervans, Autobarn offers a mid-level service, and Britz rents high-end motorhomes and camping vans.
How Much Does Gas Cost?
Gasoline is called "petrol" in Australia (you should call it petrol, or risk confusion), and it's sold by the litre. One gallon equals 3.785 litres. And petrol in Australia is expensive -- expect to pay between $3.25-4.50 per gallon -- the more isolated, the more the petrol may cost. Gas stations are self-serve, and you can find 'em anywhere, just as you can in the US.
Can I Buy a Car?
Yes, you can buy a car in Australia. There are outfits that advertise themselves as backpacker car dealers and some will buy a car back, but you need to understand that process. BUG has a good page on buying a backpacker car in Australia (they've included sources for renting campervans, too).
Your Australian hostel's bulletin board is also an excellent place to look for a backpacker car for sale. And do everyone a favor: don't abandon your car when you're done with it -- townspeople actually have town meetings to decide what to do with abandoned backpacker cars. Instead, try selling it to a backpacker before you leave and you may make a profit, or at least break even.
This article has been edited and updated by Lauren Juliff.