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Road Trip Aussie-Style: How to Plan for Three Weeks

By August 20, 2018March 7th, 201912 Comments

Two weeks is not nearly enough to see all of Australia. It’s not even enough to see all of the east coast! But if you have a few spare weeks and an itch to go somewhere nifty with your crew, this country has an unlimited amount of adventure to offer.

When we visited this part of the world, we took three weeks to explore. First one week on the North Island of New Zealand, then a week in Sydney and an additional week in Cairns, Australia.

Australia map with pins

Obviously, it makes sense in this instance to research multi-rentals in different locations. You can certainly consider driving from place to place (although in Australia distances are long). However, despite distance, keep in mind the one-way fees are often exorbitant.

Do you Need a Car in Sydney?

After returning our rental in Auckland, it was time to take the three-hour flight to Sydney. We had some work to do in town (hello digital nomads!) so we didn’t plan to leave Sydney city limits during the week. With that said, the place is huge and we’re most comfortable in our own vehicle. So did we rent a car in Sydney?

Nope, we decided to pass. Public transport is fairly simple to navigate, and one of the more affordable things in this pricey town. Lots of neighborhood, shopping areas and restaurants are walkable, and hailing a cab is easy too if need be.

guy with surfboard at bondi beach

So while you’re there don’t worry about car. BUT if you do want to stay longer or plan to hit-up tons of beaches, a car might work better. I noticed lots of surfers and those in bigger groups had vans or SUVs to park at Bondi Beach and beyond. You can reach several sandy shores from the bus or taxi though from Sydney’s city center if you just want to go for a quick swim or a stroll.

Rent a Car in Tropical North Queensland

Although we flew into Cairns, we knew we’d want to see more of the surrounding wildlife and state. Tropical North Queensland (TNQ) has it all – a beautiful tropical rainforest, lush agriculture in the Tablelands and of course, the Great Barrier Reef. There’s lots of organized tours in this part of Australia, but we prefer in a group to travel at our own pace and leave room for spontaneity. Then, you can have a taste of snorkeling/scuba, exploring jungles and everything in between. If you spend a specific amount of time in the area, you’ll want to stay in a couple different places to get a feel for the environment – and enjoy a could mini-vacations rolled into one.

turtle in great barrier reef

Renting cars in Cairns is easy, as the airport is stocked with various services for you to start driving right away. This is the easiest, as the airport is not near most major hotels, so you’ll need transport right away. You might be able to save a bit if you can find a local rental dealership and avoid airport fees, but the hassle isn’t necessary.

 In TNQ, we drove the following rough route:

map route tropical north queensland route australia

Starting with a stay at The Thala Beach Nature Reserve, it was a great acclimation to the wild flora and fauna. I was not a huge fan of the juvenile python that greeted us at our doorstep though upon arrival! We then moved toward the beach and stayed with Pullman Palm Cove for a little indulgence and pool/spa time.

koala mum and baby among leaves and branches

Between the stays were lots of day-long roadie adventures within reach of the ocean and forest. The Crater Lakes National Park is gorgeous near the Tablelands, as is Mossman River Outlet with swimming in the giant gorge. The distilleries, coffee oasis, and other foodie finds were all great highlights in the Tablelands too. We even had a chance to visit the local Port Douglas wildlife sanctuary to feed some kangaroos and see dangerous snakes up close. Most things are reachable by car, but secret swimming holes and nature often requires finding a car park and continuing on foot. Keep up with local driving laws and keep a full tank of gas when possible, as road stops can be few and far between!

Quickie About Kiwi-land

boiling-champagne-pool-eruption-new-zealand north island

While I focused on the Australia-side of this trip, I’d be remiss not to mention the beautiful North Island of New Zealand. We started the road-trip-style adventure here and got the hang of driving down under. We did a snaking route through New Zealand, with stops in stinky but beautiful Rotorua, Tauranga, Hobbiton (the real Shire!) and little towns along the way. Driving there, as in some part of Australia too, is slightly precarious. So keep this in mind when renting a car anywhere really in Oceania, that off-road situations and blockages are common. Extra insurance or precaution makes the most sense.

How do you plan for a road trip? Where did you take your longest road trip?

Eileen Cotter Wright

Author Eileen Cotter Wright

Eileen Cotter is a freelance travel journalist and owner of Pure Wander. She's our resident expat extraordinaire and falls down a lot in yoga class. Follow her on Instagram @Pure_Wander.

More posts by Eileen Cotter Wright

Join the discussion 12 Comments

  • E Masters says:

    Australia is so big! I’d love to tackle it by car and really get to know the country. New Zealand is fabulous too. Those pools look surprisingly like the ones in Yellowstone too.

  • Andi says:

    I plan to visit Australia and New Zealand one day and when I do it will be a long trip since it is so far away. My hubby and I love road trips so it makes perfect sense to do it there. So much to see and I have an old boss there who can help show us the sights in the off-the-beaten path areas. I agree on not needing a car in an urban environment though, I prefer to walk so I can eat more!

  • Heather says:

    Nice to know you didn’t rent a car in Sydney. Australia is still a destination at the top of my bucket list but I don’t love to drive in my own city let alone in a foreign country I don’t know! Good to know that public transportation is easy to navigate there! I do want to do the Great Barrier Reef though so I will have to figure that part out and for everything I want to do while I’m there, I’m going to need several weeks, argh! I also want to do New Zealand too!

  • Sarah says:

    Australia is MASSIVE and that is one reason I have shied away from visiting it as an adult. I feel like I need months to really give it the time it deserves! These were some really good roadtrip tips, though. I have only rented a car during travel once, and even then it was my boyfriend who did all the driving as I can only drive manual. One reason I’d like to learn stick shift is to open more horizons during roadtrips!

  • Ann says:

    Great post. Australia has been on my list for a long time, but you are so right — it’s HUGE. Every time I look at the long flight and all the things I’d like to see, I know I’d have to stay at least three weeks. I like the idea of getting used to driving in New Zealand before taking it on in more populated places in Australia.

  • We did almost exactly this trip for my high school graduation. We flew to Cairns and drove around. Then we took the bus to Sydney (long long ride). Then we flew over to Auckland and returned home. I still don’t think I saw a lot of the land down under but hitting these three uniquely different cities was a great way to start.

  • Cat says:

    I have always wanted to go to the East coast of Australia and do a road trip! So lucky that you got to visit the Great Barrier Reef. I was just reading an article about how the reefs are 80% bleached there and it is at the risk of disappearing. So I need to go there fast!!!

  • Juliann says:

    This is great insight. I would have definitely expected to rent a car everywhere in Australia. It’s good y know that you don’t have to. There’s so much to see!! This itinerary helps.

  • Julianne says:

    Juvenile python greeting you at your doorstep? That would scare the bejeezus out of me, haha. Other than that, though, I loved your tips and found the map with the route you took to be really helpful. We visited Australia in 2007, but went with a large group so we didn’t rent a car. I’d love to return and explore Australia at a more leisurely pace, and a road trip would be a fantastic way to do it!

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