Australia is NOT a Cheap Destination

Australian Dollar to U.S. Dollar, 2007 to now

Australian Dollar to U.S. Dollar, 2007 to now

Somewhere, somehow, people got it into their head that Australia was a cheap place to go backpacking for a while and like a conspiracy theory that refuses to die, people keep getting on a plane believing it.

As I mentioned in this earlier post, different takes on the cheapest places to travel, you often can’t trust the “travel bargains” round-ups you see in the glossy magazines. That story is often written in an editor’s head before anyone starts the interview process and if a “hot” country has taken out a big special advertising section recently, lo and behold the editor finds some reason to make sure that destination gets on lots of lists. As one freelancer interviewing me for one of these articles once said, “The editor wants popular places in here, not really the ones that are the best deal. I just have to find some justification for each one.”

Nomadic Matt has a great rundown on how Australia causes violent sticker shock for backpackers, even those coming from sky-high Europe. If you’re coming from the U.S., how do you feel about $14 six-packs of beer, for a start?

While I was in Australia this year, I spent $3,400 USD in 33 days. That total includes all my day to day expenses, flights, transport, tours, and anything I bought. If it wasn’t for my friends and the discounts I got, I would have spent about $150 USD per day.

There are several factors causing this. It is an island after all, and one on which not much grows well. In the book Collapse, author Jared Diamond compared Australia to a giant potted plant, a big swath of land where nothing edible would grow in any quantity without the massive amounts of fertilizer added to the soil each year. A huge amount of what’s used and consumed must be imported. The distances between cities are great, adding to transportation costs. It is one of the world’s economic powers though, which means it’s priced at first-world levels and above for everything from a cab ride to a soda.

On top of all this, the Aussie dollar has gotten a lot stronger in recent years, now at relative parity against the greenback and much stronger against the euro. Look at that chart at the top and you’ll see that friends who went a year and a half ago didn’t feel nearly as much pain.

Matt estimates you’ll pay $20-$25 a night for a hostel bed in some parts, but $27-$35 in the densely populated areas. (You can get a very nice private room for that in almost any of The World’s Cheapest Destinations.) You’ll pay $15-20 for a meal—or $8 for a McDonald’s value meal. Flights are expensive but the buses aren’t much better. A Cairns to Melbourne bus pass is $485. For a bus! You can fly all around Southeast Asia for less than that, hitting three or four countries.

Matt gives some advice on how to cut down on expenses, but they’re trims around the edges rather than radical cuts. Unless you’ve got a job lined up ahead of time, skip Australia for now if you’re on a budget. See the full post here: Cost of traveling Oz.

  1. Asa

    Spot on. We’ve been to eight countries on our world trip so far (Aus, NZ, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, India – hitting most of your cheap destinations :-) and can vouch that Australia was far and away the most expensive. If people think Aus is cheap, then they’ll think NZ is super-cheap. We found NZ to be a breath of fresh air for prices, but it was expensive there too. India has been the biggest surprise as far as costs go; I did not expect it to be this cheap. We’re paying $5 to $10 per night for lodging and it’s actually reasonably nice. Great blog, keep it up.

  2. MJ

    Let the dream live! All you have to do is make your way west… Check out this gal’s most awesome travel-Australia site ever: (Note of possible interest: If you’re young enough, 30-, I think, she explains how you can get a work visa).

    And anyway… You’re visions of a cheap aussie-ness can still become a reality. I know. It did for me. And I did it job-free.

    If you have a fairly robust constitution for being outdoors, and you have enough time, it can become your real life adventure story too.

    Here’s a tip from me (I did this for 3 months, but longer is better): With a bit of (fully-refundable!) capital, you can travel for the price of little more than food and gas: Buy a car at the Car Mart near Sydney airport. Lots of them come with full camping gear (my vintage Subaru “Outback” was tricked-out and perfectly reliable)… sleeper-vans are available too, but cost more.

    Drive around and find free / cheap places to lay your head. Buy food from markets, etc. Enjoy the spontaneity!

    Then sell the car for the SAME price you paid… maybe a bit more if you’re savvy.

    My hometown, Sedona AZ, is another “red-planet-wonderland-kind-of-place” that’s often thought of as impossibly expensive. It does cost $20 to camp at a site, but you can easily find you’re own good (and legal) spot. Or, $60 a day will get you a motel with a private balcony and great view.

    Why not skip the international flight and visit “the most beautiful place in America” (USA Today, etc.) and “the spiritual capital of the United States” (Jeopardy, tv game show)… ? With the money you save, make you’re way to splendiferously scenic Sedona AZ land.

    My site’s good for a mid-range market, but if you’re really “hard-core,” there’s a place to stay for free: Go west (hmm… a pattern?) past “the edge of town” on 89A and find the 525 (2+ miles). Turn off into open fields. You can stay there for free, and absolutely no one will hassle you. No “hook-ups” for rv-types, but wide open natural glory!

    This is a locals-insider-Sedona-tip that’s just for you guys (it’s not on my site).

    Hope you find your bliss, whatever it is. Cheers! MJ

  3. Amber

    Hi all,
    This is absolute rubbish!
    First of all, if you are open to trying new things rather than sticking to your homegrown products, you wont be paying on expensive importation costs. $14 a 6 pack refers to THE most expensive 6 pack in the bottle-o. You can get a case of 24 bottles for AU$30, (hammer n tongs, hollandia..) and it is good beer!
    There are plenty of places where you can get a good feed for less than $10 a meal, you just need to ask the locals, and find out where the student areas are. Most places offer freebies on some day of the week. I am Australian, and while I was living back home I never spent more than $40 a week on groceries or $30 a week on alcohol. Unless you go out and drink, then you might add on $50. But seriously, you can get 4L of boxed wine which tastes surprisingly good for $11. Most backpackers drink that. I knew a guy who had no money and busked his way around oz, hitchhiking, singing, checking out the local student eat outs. The trick is to prepare your own meals and bring a tent! There are plenty of free camping spots and the weather is nearly always permitting. It is cheaper to drive around the country, so buy a cheap car when you get there, and sell it before you go, that way its like hiring a car that you dont really pay for!
    It is worth checking out the cheap domestic airways like tiger airways for travel across the country (ie, one way ticket from sydney to melbourne can be $20, you need to shop around and not be picky with dates).
    Point is, if you are flexible and open minded. If you are really going to Australia to TRAVEL and not to live the same as in your home country, it can be very cheap.
    I am living in Ireland now, and even though it is in the peak of a recession, it is still more expensive for shopping and groceries than Australia.
    Feel free to email me for any questions :)

    • tim


      Yes, you can find ways to scrimp and save in many places, even Europe and Japan, but that doesn’t mean they’re not expensive.

      “You can get a case of 24 bottles for AU$30, (hammer n tongs, hollandia..) and it is good beer!”

      That’s a HORRIBLE price for those beers! A case of Hollandia goes for half that in the U.S. And premium micro brews are less than what you’re paying for the cheap stuff.

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