Australian Road Trips: The Ultimate Guide
Road trips are one of my favourite ways to see a country. I don’t think there’s a better way to see a country, then by driving around and soaking up all the scenery!
Driving is perhaps the best way to see the unique scenery and landscapes in Australia. For instance, on an Adelaide to Darwin road trip, you’ll gradually see the scenery change from arid desert to tropical bush the further north you go!
I did a few road trips in Australia while I was here. The freedom of travelling around the country was something that I enjoyed. I recommend renting your own car instead of going on a guided tour.
There is nothing better than getting in a car and setting off on an adventure, you never know what you will see! Even a little-known destination can be surprisingly interesting!
There are numerous routes to choose from. The most popular routes are to drive down the East Coast and on the Great Ocean Road. But that doesn’t mean they are the best. I preferred the drive from Adelaide to Darwin, as I saw a different side to the country than the one that is advertised.
Whether you’re planning a trip to Australia on a working holiday visa or backpacking, I highly recommend you do a road trip. You won’t regret it and you will a side to the country that you would otherwise not see.
Australian Road Trips
Driving around Australia can be dangerous, due to the long distances involved. The majority of the country is sparsely populated, which means you can easily run into trouble. Running out of petrol in the middle of the outback is the nightmare scenario. This nearly happened to me! Thankfully, we came across a petrol station with 10km of fuel left!
If you see a petrol station and have under half a tank left, make sure you fill up. To stay on the safe side, print off a list of stations on your route beforehand. This way you will have an idea how far the next stop is and whether you have enough fuel to get there.
All of the main roads in Australia are sealed. This means they consist of tarmac and are your everyday road you find from country to country. However, there dirt tracks throughout the country, especially in the outback, and there is the temptation to use these.
I would only advise going on these tracks, if you have a car that is suited to this terrain, such as a 4×4. When travelling in the Northern Territory, it’s illegal for 2wd vehicles to use these tracks, so be careful when driving there! These tracks are literally off the beaten track and if you a problem, you could be in big trouble. By all means, go off-road if you have the vehicle and experience, but for everyone else, stick to sealed roads.
Driving in Australia is a little tricky without a licence, so make sure you have one before you visit! If you have a foreign driving licence and it is in English (e.g. from the UK or Canada), then that allows you to drive in Australia for 3 months.
If you are not lucky enough to have an English language driving licence, you will need an international driving permit. This is issued in your home country before you leave. If you don’t have this, the other option is to convert your licence to an Australian one, which can be done for a small fee.
Cars drive on the left-hand side of the road in Australia. Keep this in mind if you are from a country that drives on the right! Wearing a seat belt is compulsory and will result in a $250 fine if you are caught not wearing one.
Speed limits vary in between the states in Australia, so it’s handy to know what those limits are beforehand. In general, the limit is 100km/h, although in New South Wales it is 110km/h in some areas. The same is true in the Northern Territory, although that limit rises to 130km/h on highways away from urban areas.
When passing a vehicle, it is common etiquette to raise your left index finger to acknowledge the other driver. If you see a car broke down on the side of the road, it’s a good idea to stop and check if everything is ok. They might be fine or they might have a serious issue, stopping to check is the least you can do. Good karma and all that!
Road trains are a common sight on the highways in the outback. They can be as long as 55m, so it can be quite daunting if you’ve never seen one before. Don’t try and overtake a road train you are approaching. They are often very long and you risk causing an accident. Simply, pull over to the side of the road and have a break for a while, so you’re not stuck behind it.
If you are in front of a road train that wants to pass you, then let it. Stay focused and in control of your car, as the speed and length of the vehicle while it passes will draw your car to it. Road trains are bigger than your car, so treat them with respect and you won’t have any accidents.
Driving around Australia, you will notice that there are green signs on the side of the roads from time to time. When I did the first of my Australian road trips, I was confused as to what they meant. It turns out they are very helpful!
The signs indicate the distance to the nearest town. If you are driving on the Adelaide to Melbourne route and see a green sign that says R45, then it is 45km to Robe. This is useful to figure out how far you are from civilisation and a potential petrol station.
A map and first aid kit are essential items for any road trip. GPS and Google Maps may have made paper maps seem obsolete, but if you are stuck they can be a lifesaver! The Trusted Traveller has a great guide that details things you may need during your road trip and their cost!
A power inverter is a great tool to keep your phone charged on long journeys without access to power. Ensure your phone has music on it, or you have a mp3 player, long trips without music can get tedious quick. Ensure you have adequate food and water for your trip, as you never know how far the next town could be!
Obviously, ensure you have everything you need to fix any issues you might have with your vehicle, such as wrenches, spare tyre, jacks etc. You’ll be stuck somewhere for a long time without any of these!
You won’t have access to wifi while you’re on the road. So stop at a McDonalds along the way as they have free wifi at most locations in Australia! If your mobile network is Telstra, then you will most likely have coverage everywhere you go. Everyone else will have to make with waiting until you return to civilisation from their Australian road trips!
If there are a lot of you in your campervan or you’re travelling by car then having a shower can be tricky. One way of getting around this if you are travelling along the coast is to stop near beaches. They often have beachside showers that you can use, many of which are enclosed!
Using Google Maps is the best way to find your way driving around Australia. Bel Around the World shows how you can export your Google Map Itinerary to your phone and use it offline! This is particularly helpful if you plan on driving in the outback or less populated areas!
Depending on how many people accompany you on your trip, you have a choice between doing your road trip in a car or a campervan. Another factor to consider is whether you want to stay in hostels along the way, as this will also impact upon your choice.
If there at least 4 of you on the trip, then I would recommend getting a campervan, if you don’t want to stay in hostels. You can split the cost between you and it saves the hassle of moving in and out of hostels, which is annoying on road trips.
There are a lot of companies that other car and campervan rental in Australia. The market is competitive, so you can find reasonable deals. I would advise going into a backpackers travel agent such as peterpans and seeing what they can do. Normally, they can get you a deal cheaper than what rental companies quote!
Other companies such as Jucy, Wicked and Apollo are reputable companies who have competitive deals when it comes to cars and campers. Be sure to have a look around before you make your decision, as you can normally find a decent deal at one of these companies!
Australian Road Trip Routes
Below is just a selection of a few routes that are most widely travelled while backpacking Australia. Given the size of the country, there are obviously a few other routes you can do. I go into detail about the most popular Australian road trip routes below.
I’ve created a table that shows the distance between major cities in Australia. This is to give you an idea of the distances involved when travelling Australia! As you can see, even some journeys that don’t look like they’ll take too long are quite a distance!
Adelaide Alice Springs Brisbane Broome Cairns Darwin Melbourne Perth Sydney
Adelaide X 1542 km
Alice Springs 1542 km
X 3012 km
X 4560 km
Broome 4288 km
X 3962 km
Cairns 3143 km
X 2727 km
Darwin 3053 km
X 3781 km
Melbourne 728 km
X 3452 km
Perth 2724 km
X 4144 km
Sydney 1420 km
Adelaide <-> Melbourne
This route is an extension of the Great Ocean Road, which is one of the most popular road trips in Australia. This was the first of my Australian road trips and I thoroughly enjoyed it! There was always something interesting to see along the way and the distance is not too long.
You have the option of heading to Wilson’s Promontory once you reach Melbourne if you start in Adelaide. Travelling to Wilson’s Promontory was one of the best things I did during my time in Australia! If you start from Melbourne, you could head there first, or go before you do your trip. Either way, I would definitely go there if you have the chance!
The route takes you along the Great Ocean Road, which is one of the best places to visit in Australia. You can check out The twelve Apostles, The Grotto and London Bridge. The Great Ocean Road is not very long at 151 miles (243km) and can easily be done in a day.
Other highlights include Torquay, where you can check out world-famous Bell’s Beach, a particular highlight if you love surfing! Apollo Bay and Cape Otway are cool places to visit and you should head to the Grampians. A great national park just over the border from South Australia, it has a lot of great waterfalls and mountains to explore. The Grampians is home to a lot of wildlife, just don’t get too close to the Kangaroos, they can be a bit lively!
There isn’t an awful lot to see while travelling in South Australia on the trip. The road from Adelaide is mostly salt lakes with little else. Although you should head to Blue Lake near Mt Gambier and check out the cool lake formed in a crater. From December to March, the lake has a distinct blue colour, while from April to November it turns a greyish colour!
Read more: Adelaide to Melbourne road trip
Adelaide <-> Darwin
This route cuts right through the heart of Australia, taking you from the arid south to the tropical north of the giant continent. Along the way, you will encounter some of the strangest and most wonderful places in Australia.
Although Uluru is not strictly a part of this route, I highly recommend you visit as it is one of the best things to see in Australia. There is also Kata Tjuta and Grand Canyon to see as well, which are just as impressive as Uluru!
This route is long, wherever you start from. The only difference is that if you’re travelling from Adelaide, once you pass Port Augusta early on, civilisation ceases. So you have to decide, whether to stop overnight in the Flinders Ranges or head on to the wacky town of Coober Pedy!
This trip can be dangerous, as there are large periods where you do not encounter civilisation at all. Make sure you have adequate supplies and always stop for fuel because it might be a long way till the next petrol station.
This route takes in some of the least-known and best sights in Australia, such as Coober Pedy, Mataranka Thermal Springs and the Devil’s Marbles.
This is one of the better road trips in Australia, the diversity of scenery and landscapes as you head north is incredible! I recommend travelling to Darwin, it’s an interesting city with lots of things to see and do!
Read more: Adelaide to Darwin road trip
Adelaide <-> Perth
This is another one of the routes in Australia that I regret not doing!
The route doesn’t look too interesting, as there isn’t much in the way of civilisation on this route. Perth is one of the most isolated cities in the world, so that tells its own story!
However, an Adelaide to Perth road trip has a few interesting sights. Heading off from Adelaide, you can go to the Flinders Ranges and head to Port Lincoln. Here you can go down in a cage with Great White Sharks if you are brave enough!
The Nullarbor Plain is home to one of the straightest stretches of road anywhere in the world at 145km! It’s so long that the Royal Flying Doctors sometimes use it as an emergency runway! This part of the trip doesn’t have much to see, but that changes as you head closer to Perth.
Esperance is a picturesque town with secluded beaches, a great place to stop for a few hours or overnight. If you have an interest in mining, you can head to the Kalgoorlie super pit, which is Australia’s largest gold mine. There are even tours of the pit, which can be done for $45.
Before reaching Perth, you should check out Wave Rock. This is one of the more unusual places to visit in Australia! It is a rock formation that is shaped like an ocean wave that is about to break. This trip may seem bland at first glance, but there are actually a number of places to visit!
This is the most popular backpacker route in Australia and for me the least inspiring. There wasn’t anything blew my mind during this trip compared to the other Australian road trips I had done. Maybe it was because this is the most popular route and I like to be different, but I wasn’t overly impressed!
The East Coast is the most populated area in Australia, so there are a number of cities you can start from such as Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane or even Cairns! Melbourne is a great city and it would be a tragedy if you did not visit while in Australia, so I would recommend starting there.
You can do this trip via greyhound bus, by buying one of the numerous passes they have available. I did this from Brisbane to Cairns and didn’t enjoy it. Travelling from Airlie Beach to Cairns can take 10 hours for example. I thought this was worse than coping with a long-haul flight for a similar length of time, at least, they have in-flight entertainment!
My advice would be to do it by car or campervan, this way you can stop where you want. You can create your own East Coast road trip itinerary and do what you want. You’re not stuck on a bus for hours on end, bored out of your mind! Depending on where you start there are a number of interesting places to visit.
Byron Bay is a haven for backpackers and further up the coast the Gold Coast is a great spot. When travelling in Queensland, Noosa and Mooloolaba are interesting seaside towns that are great to relax at for a few days. Hervey Bay was one of my favourite stops along this route. I liked the laidback vibe of the town and that I had large parts of the beach to myself!
From here there is Fraser Island, Airlie Beach, where you can see the Whitsundays. Then it’s onto Cairns, which was a bit of a letdown for me! I thought it was a poor version of Darwin. This trip is what most people do when travelling Australia. However, I felt it was uninspiring and much of a muchness as I continued north.
A big regret of mine is that I did not get to do a Western Australia road trip. This happened for a combination of reasons, work and relationships, but should I return in the future, this is where I will visit! This is one of the Australian road trips that I really want to do!
A good friend of mine did this trip from Perth to Broome and said it was one of the best parts of her time in Australia. She also confirmed what I already thought, that the West Coast is amazing! As if I couldn’t feel any worse about missing out!
The West Coast is considerably less populated than the East Coast, which means that the scenery and landscape are generally unspoilt. There are lots of great things to see, such as the Ningaloo Reef, Monkey Mia and cool coastal towns such as Exmouth and Broome.
Driving from Perth to Broome on the Great Northern Highway is a long road trip at 2,240.5 km. If you want, you could be really ambitious and extend the trip to Darwin! This would be a considerable trip, but travelling Australia always involves long distances.
It would definitely be worth it, to see some of the lesser known and best sights in Australia!
Tasmanian Road Trip
Here’s the thing:
Despite being one of the most beautiful parts of the country, Tasmania is often forgotten about during a trip to Australia. This was certainly the case for me!
I didn’t visit Tasmania and I wish I had as it looks like the perfect place for a road trip. The scenery here is quite similar to what I saw while travelling New Zealand.
There’s mountains across the island, beautiful beaches and lots of incredible scenery as well. A road trip around Tasmania would almost certainly rival those in New Zealand!
As I’ve not been to Tasmania I can’t really comment on what it’s like. However, Claire’s Footsteps has, so if you want a Tasmania road trip itinerary, check her’s out!
The Big Lap of Australia
If those Australian road trips are not adventurous enough for you, then I’ve left the most adventurous one till the end!
Let me explain:
As you can probably tell from the title above, this road trip involves doing one massive lap of Australia. Basically you drive around the entire circumference of the country!
This is a serious undertaking and not for the faint-hearted. The route clocks in at a massive 39373.5km (24465.5)! This is not something you simply do on a whim, it needs serious planning.
You will almost certainly need a 4×4 for this road trip, as navigating the Cape York peninsula, will require driving on unsealed roads.
There’s no doubt this would be one of the best ways to see Australia, as you will see the numerous diverse landscapes. However, it would take a good while to complete, and potentially suck up your budget!
This is without a doubt the ultimate Australian road trip, completing it would be an achievement in itself!
There’s no doubt in my mind that driving around Australia is the best way to see the country!
They allow you to see the country from another point of view. Plus, self driving in Australia allows you to see what you want, when you want!
This is the kicker for me! As you can tailor your itinerary to please yourself. Travelling Australia is much more fun when it involves a road trip!
If you’ve done all these trips and are yearning for more than I recommend getting the Lonely Planet Guide to the Best trips in Australia! It has detailed information on 38 great trips you can do in Australia. This information came in handy for me while travelling in this great country!
- Driving in Australia – Wikitravel. A useful guide that goes into more detail about rules, tips and requirements for driving in Australia.
- Driving in Australia – Keith Lane. Another guide that has a lot of practical tips and advice for backpackers doing Australian road trips.