Endless highways, fabulous scenery, eccentric little towns in the middle of nowhere: Australia is road-trip paradise. Even if you don't have time for major exploring, traveling by car can be a great way to explore a particular region at your own pace. Traffic in city centers can be terrible, so keep the car for the open road.
Driving is generally easy in Australia, once you adjust to traveling on the left side of the road. Road conditions on busy coastal highways usually pose few problems, though remote roads (even big highways) and routes through the desert are often a different story. When you're preparing a driving itinerary, it's vital to bear in mind the huge distances involved and calculate travel time and stopovers accordingly.
Most rental companies in Australia accept driving licenses from other countries, including the United States, provided that the information on the license is clear and in English. Otherwise, an International Driver's Permit is required (but they'll still want to see your regular license, too).
Gas is known in Australia as "petrol." Self-service petrol stations are plentiful near major cities and in rural towns. In remote regions they can be few and far between, so fill up whenever you can. In really out-of-the-way places, carrying a spare petrol can is a good idea. Smaller petrol stations often close at night and on Sunday, though in major cities and on main highways there are plenty of stations open round the clock.
On-street parking is usually plentiful in Australian cities, except in the traffic-heavy CBD (downtown area) of the big capitals. Electronic meters are the norm—you pay in advance, and there's usually a maximum stay, which you should respect, as Australian parking inspectors are very vigilant. Paid parking lots are also common and usually clearly signposted. Outside the capitals, on-street parking is usually free, as are the lots outside malls and supermarkets.
Renting a Car
Australia's cities have good public transport, so there's not much point in renting a car if you're staying in an urban area, especially one popular with tourists. Step outside city limits, and a car is practically a necessity.
Rates for economy cars (a Hyundai Getz, Excel, or Accent or a Nissan Pulsar, for example) with unlimited mileage start at around A$60 a day (plus fees).
Intercity highways are usually in good condition, but more remote roads—even those that look important on maps—can often be unpaved or full of potholes. You can manage short distances on these in a car (for example, an access road to an attraction a few miles from the highway). For longer stretches and any Outback driving, a 4WD is necessary, as insurance generally doesn't cover damage to other types of cars traveling such roads. Only rent a 4WD if you're competent to drive one on tough surfaces like sand and bogs: rescue vehicles take a long time to get to the middle of nowhere.
Rental companies have varying policies and charges for unusual trips, such as lengthy cross-state expeditions around the Top End and Western Australia. Ask about additional mileage, fuel, and insurance charges if you're planning to cover a lot of ground.
Another popular way to see Australia is to rent a camper van (motor home). Nearly all have a toilet, shower, and cooking facilities; utensils and bed linen are usually included, too. Smaller vans for two can be rented for A$50–A$150 a day with unlimited mileage (there's usually a five-day minimum).
In Australia you must be 21 to rent a car, and rates may be higher if you're under 25. There is no upper age limit for rental so long as you have a valid international driver's license. Most companies charge extra for each additional driver. It's compulsory for children to use car seats, so be sure to notify your agency when you book—most charge around A$9 per day for a baby or booster seat, or find them for free as part of certain deals.
Your driver's license may not be recognized outside your home country. You may not be able to rent a car without an International Driving Permit (IDP), which can be used only in conjunction with a valid driver's license and which translates your license into 10 languages. Check the AAA website for more info as well as for IDPs ($15) themselves.
Car Rental Resources
American Automobile Association. In the United States, the American Automobile Association is a good resource for rental options abroad. The most common way to contact the organization is through state and regional members. 315/797–5000; www.aaa.com.
Australian Automobile Association. 02/6247–7311; www.aaa.asn.au.
Local Rental Agencies
Apex Car Rentals. 1800/121029; 1877/275--8680; www.apexrentacar.com.au.
Redspot Car Rentals. 02/8303–2222; 1300/668810; www.redspot.com.au.
Wicked Campers. 1800/246869; 07/3217–0100; www.wickedcampers.com.au.
Alamo. 1888/233--8749; www.alamo.com.
Avis. 1800/331–1212; 136–333; www.avis.com.au.
Budget. 800/472–3325; 1300/362848; www.budget.com.au.
Hertz. 800/654–3001; 13–3039; www.hertz.com.
National Car Rental. 877/222–9058; www.nationalcar.com.
Thrifty. 800/847–4389; 1300/367227; www.thrifty.com.au.
Except for some expressways in and around the major cities, most highways are two-lane roads with frequent passing lanes but no barrier separating the two directions of traffic. Main roads are usually paved and well maintained, though lanes are narrower than in the United States.
Outside big urban areas roundabouts are far more common than traffic lights—some towns have dozens of them. Remember that when driving on the left you go around a roundabout clockwise and give way to traffic entering from the left and already on the roundabout.
Potential road hazards multiply in rural areas. Driving standards, which are generally high in Australia, become more lax. Road surfaces deteriorate, becoming potholed or uneven. Fine sand sometimes fills the holes, making them hard to see. Windshield cracks caused by small stones are frequent. Flash floods are also common during the summer months in northern Australia. Locals advise never crossing a flooded road. When in doubt, turn back or seek advice from the police before crossing.
Animals—kangaroos and livestock, primarily—are common causes of road accidents in rural Australia, especially at night. If you see an animal near the edge of the road, slow down immediately, as it may just decide to step out in front of you. If it does, hitting the animal is generally preferable to swerving, as you can lose control of your car and roll. However, braking too suddenly into the animal can send it through your windshield. Ideally, you should report any livestock you kill to the nearest ranch, and should check dead kangaroos for joeys (babies carried in their pouches): if you find one, wrap it up and call animal rescue or take it to the nearest vet.
"Road trains" are another Outback hazard: they're truck convoys made of several connected trailers, totaling up to 170 feet. They take a long time to brake, so keep your distance and overtake them only with extreme caution.
Outback driving can be exhausting and potentially dangerous. Avoid driving alone, and rest often. Carry plenty of water with you (at least one gallon per person per day)—high temperatures make dehydration a common problem on the road. Don't count on your cell phone working in the middle of nowhere, and if an emergency occurs never leave your vehicle: it's visible, and provides you shelter from the sun and cold. Stick by the side of the road: sooner or later, someone will come along.
If you have an emergency requiring an ambulance, the fire department, or the police, dial 000.
Many major highways now have telephones for breakdown assistance; you can also use your cell phone if you have one. Otherwise, flag down and ask a passing motorist to call the nearest motoring service organization for you. Most Australian drivers are happy to assist, particularly in country areas.
Each state has its own motoring organization that provides assistance for vehicle breakdowns. When you rent a vehicle, check that you are entitled to assistance from the relevant motoring organization free of charge. A toll-free nationwide number is available for roadside assistance.
Emergency Services. 000.
National Roadside Assistance. 13–1111.
Rules of the Road
Speed limits vary from state to state. As a rough guide, 50–60 kilometers per hour (30–37 mph) is the maximum in populated areas, reduced to 40 kph (25 mph) near schools. On open roads limits range from 100 to 130 kph (62–80 mph). Limits are usually signposted clearly and regularly, and are enforced by police speed checks and—in state capitals—by automatic cameras.
Drunk driving, once a big problem in Australia, is controlled diligently. The legal limit is 0.05% blood-alcohol level, and penalties are so high that many Aussies just don't drink if they're driving. Seat belts are mandatory nationwide. Children must be restrained in a seat appropriate to their size. Car rental agencies can install these for about A$30 per week, with 24 hours' notice. It is illegal to use a mobile-phone handset when driving.
Traffic circles, called "roundabouts," are widely used at intersections; cars that have already entered the circle have the right-of-way. At designated intersections in Melbourne's central business district, you must get into the left lane to make a right-hand turn (called a "hook turn")—this is to facilitate crossing streetcar lines. Watch for the sign "right-hand turn from left lane only." Everywhere, watch for sudden changes in speed limits.
The Australian Automobile Association has a branch in each state, known as the National Roads and Motorists Association (NRMA) in New South Wales and Canberra, the Automobile Association in the Northern Territory (AANT), and the Royal Automobile Club (RAC) in all other states. It's affiliated with AAA worldwide, and has reciprocal services to American members, including emergency road service, road maps, copies of each state and territory's Highway Code, and discounts on car rental and accommodations.