Impossible to sum up Australia, but some things worked for us and others didn’t. Here are a few tips based on our experience over six months.
All my $ figures in this post refer to Australian dollars, currently about US$.70=AU$1
Airbnb: We stayed in eight different Airbnb properties in Australia that ranged from passable to extremely lovely and comfortable. Most were on the excellent end of the range. Airbnb is increasingly commercial, meaning that you do not meet the host, just let yourself in with a keycode. Properties are often very clean, which is nice, but they sometimes lack personality, and the wall decoration consists of beige/white paint and mirrors. We try hard to stay in places that are owned and operated by the same person, preferably their only Airbnb property. That seems to yield the best results in terms of atmosphere. Still, in two cases we found the owner started with a single rental and was busy adding others. All our rentals were legal, though it is becoming necessary to check the rules for major cities, as property owners aren’t always forthcoming about the legality of their rental if there is a gray area.
Car Rental: We rented a car in each place we stayed. Cars can only be rented for 28 days so occasionally we had to call in toward the end of the month and add a day or two. We never found an agency that made us come in to the office for this. We rented from a wide variety of companies, Avis, Hertz, Budget, and others. We don’t have an auto rental loyalty card of any kind. Most of the time it did not cost extra, or very little, to add me as the second driver. When it cost hundreds of dollars, I didn’t drive.
Drive on the left: I’d still recommend that you do what we did and take a driving lesson before your first time driving on the left. We found it useful, and though we have driven on the left most of the past two years, we still have to pay attention.
Driving in Australia: Perhaps it is greater use of speed cameras, or the effects of aging on reaction time, or the difficulty of remembering how much parking time we paid for, but we got the occasional traffic ticket in Australia. These come by mail about three months after the fact, so it is impossible to contest them, or even to remember the circumstances. Traffic fines are big business, too. Fines are high, and visitors who plan to drive should budget about $200/month for possible traffic tickets. Generally, drivers in Australia don’t speed, and don’t often pass unless there is a dedicated passing lane. Driving takes time and patience.
People tell jokes about the need to avoid hitting slow-moving koalas and echidnas, or faster moving wallabies and kangaroos. And look out for the gasket-chewing parrots and cockatoos! We avoided driving at nightfall after seeing many, many dead animals on the side of the road in Tasmania during January, our first month in Australia. We never saw as much roadkill again, but the thought of hitting a biggish wallaby was enough to keep us indoors at sunrise and sunset when they are most active.
Food: Coffee is brewed to be strong in Australia. Even if you order a latte, you may have to go back and ask for extra milk.
We ate lots and lots of Australian lamb, and it was delicious.
Did you know Australia grows cacao and coffee in the tropical areas? Try locally grown coffee and chocolate if you see it. Northern markets also carry locally grown macadamia nuts. Try some of the native fruits and herbs, like finger limes, bush lemons, lilly-pilly, and lemon myrtle. We tried to shop at local farmers markets as often as possible. It was easy to find when and where online.
Health/Travel Insurance: We purchased travel insurance for each of our flights to/from/in Australia. Fortunately, we never had to use it. We did not purchase any additional health insurance because most policies do not cover pre-existing conditions and that’s usually what needs treating while on the road. Jonathan saw a physician to renew his prescriptions that we could not get easily from the US. The office did not charge him for phone follow-ups when one medication became unavailable and he needed a prescription for a replacement. He was able to get his prescriptions filled anywhere in the country for about the same cost as his copay for medications in the US. I saw the “rock stars” of Australian retina specialists by getting referrals from each doctor to the next. My treatment was excellent and paying “full price” in Australia was about 1/3 more than my copay after insurance in the US. (see my other blog: Macular DegenerationontheRoad.wordpress.com)
People: We found Australians to be the most friendly people on earth. It was easy to strike up a conversation or ask directions. In situations that might be uncomfortable in the US, like finding people living in your backyard (see Sydney), we ended up with new friends.
Public transportation/Parking costs: Public transport is available in the large cities. We used it effectively in Melbourne, where we were close to both train and tram lines. In Sydney, we were on a bus line, and the buses were much slower and usually behind schedule. Fares ran about $6 each way. Driving into the city center anywhere in Australia usually involves heavy traffic. Downtown parking in Melbourne and Sydney is expensive ($16/hr). There is often a fee to park at public beaches, up to $4/hour, though the fee is usually capped after four hours.
Shopping: We found lots of markets in Australia. The big cities all have large downtown market areas, though many of these are focused on tourist shopping, not household shopping. Others mix food with craft items. Farmers markets, where food is the central theme, tend to fall on weekday mornings (see Food, above). Though prices are usually higher than those of grocery stores, they make an enjoyable visit.
Telephone: We used Optus. A $10 SIM card and a $30 per month plan (Epic Data plan) gave us lots of data and all the phone minutes and messages we could use. By setting up automatic recharge we were given a few minutes of “extras” which included international minutes to make an occasional call back to the US. This was handy for contacting places that wouldn’t respond to email, like doctors offices.