Getting on the Road Down Under
When you think about travelling cheaply around Australia, it may not cross your mind to spend hundreds (or even thousands) of dollars on a car. But think again:
- You can charge other backpackers for lifts
- If you buy a camper you can sleep in it, and save on hostels
- You can sell it at the end of your trip - bonus!
- You'll have complete freedom
So you see, cars are more backpacker-friendly than you might think! In this guide I'll cover everything from where to buy one to how to fix it when it starts making funny noises in the middle of the Outback...
Before you go
Before buying a car, think about these questions:
- How far do you want to travel?
- Are you planning on sleeping in it?
- How well do you trust your repair skills? Are you going to need a vehicle that’s almost guaranteed not to break down?
- Can you afford to cut your losses and sell it for scrap if it dies? (It’s important that you’ve still got enough in the bank to see you through the rest of your trip).
Try to figure out costs as best you can. Check petrol prices and shop around for the current rate for an average second- or third-hand car. Don’t forget that you’ve got the option of selling your vehicle at the end of your trip (if it’s lasted that long), and that you can save money on accommodation by sleeping in it.
With a car, you have total freedom. You can drive at your own pace to all the destinations other backpackers have to get to by coach.
What type of car should I get?
Ultimately, the type of car you buy will depend on whether or not you fancy sleeping in it. By doing so, you can save on hostel accommodation, although the running costs for sleep-in vehicles tend to be higher than for regular cars.
If you fancy a bed that travels with you:
Perfect for larger groups or someone that really likes their space.
Camper vans are the perfect vehicles for travellers. They have enough room for luggage and a bed, and quickly become a home away from home. Very practical if you’ve got lots of bulky luggage (surfboards, snowboards and suchlike) to ferry about, but less so if it’s just you and a single backpack.
Campers can cost considerably more than cars, so be wary of the price. Don’t be tempted by something that, deep down, you know you can’t afford.
Stationwagon / Estate
A camper isn’t the only option available to those who want to sleep on the road.
Estate cars, with extra room at the back, will have chairs that fold down to give you a flat bed - often a lot more comfortable than the ground outside!
If you’d prefer to stay in hostels, or you’re traveling with a tent:
The saloon is standard backpacker fare, since they’re cheaper, still have plenty of space, and are comparatively easy to service.
You should be able to pick up a reasonably reliable saloon for around AU$4,500.
Just make sure you go for one with a large boot, as there’s nothing worse than having to cram your luggage in every time you set off for your next destination.
Other questions you need to ask
Petrol or diesel?
Depending on where you’re backpacking, the prices of both diesel and petrol fuel can vary dramatically. As a general rule, however, Aussie diesel rates are cheaper than petrol, and diesel can carry you a lot further than petrol can. The only real drawback is that a diesel engine will typically offer less performance than a petrol equivalent, but if you really care that the 0-60mph of your second-hand backpacker vehicle isn’t as fast as your Nissan Skyline back home, you should probably just stay at home with the soft-top fans.
Automatic or manual?
If you’re planning on doing maintenance to the vehicle yourself, then don’t buy an automatic, since you’ll never be able to take any of it apart! If something goes wrong, it’ll be very difficult to identify the problem (unless it’s something fairly obvious, like a wheel falling off). If you intend to travel long distances - quite likely in Australia - you shouldn’t be changing gear that often anyway.
To be honest, the exact brand of the car doesn’t matter. Try to make sure it’s fairly well known, as it will make finding replacement parts much easier. Breakers yards will often have the second-hand bits you’re after, which can save you an absolutely fortune. If there’s a good list of dealers in the car, then any make will do. Just make sure that there are options at all your major stop destinations before heading across Australia in, say, a Swedish car.
Does size matter?
Happily, no! Both large and small vehicles have their distinct advantages.
A big car or camper will cost you more to run, but you can fit extra people inside to help pay for it (offering lifts to other backpackers isn’t a bad idea). If you’re traveling very long-distance, like an East Coast to West Coast route, you might want to pay extra to reduce the feeling of cabin-fever. Remember that you and your mates will be carrying all your worldly possessions, so make sure it has a roofrack.
Smaller vehicles are much more practical over short distances, or if you weren’t planning on keeping the car for long. They’ve got lower running costs and, if you’re the only one travelling, it’s the only sensible option to take.
Where to find a car
The hostel noticeboard
You’ll find a board on the wall in most hostels, and they’ll usually be covered in adverts for everything from cars to airline tickets. The cars you’ll find here are often old bangers, but despite having six million miles on the clock (and some might even have seven!), they’ll have been round the continent several times, and the law of averages suggests they’ll be able to do it again!
Watch out for some dealers that use backpacker boards to sell cars they can’t get rid of. If you buy one of these and it dies, it’s unlikely you’ll get your money back. The simplest rule here is: if they don’t look like a backpacker, don’t trust them.
Backpackers will, as a general rule, tell you how much the car costs to run and the distance they’ve travelled in it, how/where to get it serviced and the procedure for an emergency, and about the paperwork you’ll need to sort out. Most backpackers will also give you plenty of suggestions on spots to visit too.
They won’t, however, tell you if the car has had "a bit of a bump", or where to go if it breaks down, since that’ll suggest it already has. Don’t expect to be notified if certain bits don’t work, or if it isn’t roadworthy. This is where it helps to understand cars - if it goes round the block on the test drive and you still have doubts, it’s handy to be able to look under the bonnet and check things out for yourself.
Local papers / supermarket notice boards
These will almost always be being sold by locals. Since you’ll visit their house to check out the car, you’ll be able to find out where they live. However, they’ll have the home advantage there, so be aware they might try to pull a fast one. It’s likely that their car will be more expensive than the ones you find on hostel boards, but they probably haven’t been driven round the country several times and will have been treated with more care. If it’s just had the one owner, and was only ever driven occasionally for the school-run, then you’ll be laughing!
Used car auctions
These can be a bit chaotic. Everybody brings their cars to a field, and then tries to flog them to you any way they can. It’s highly likely that a lot of them will try to rip you off, so be careful. However, you can also get some fantastic deals at the genuine auctions, so if you don’t know too much about cars then it might be worth paying a local mechanic $30 to come with you, on the understanding that you’ll pay him another $50 if he helps you net a good car. It’s possible that you could end up buying a car for $200 that’s worth $800, and you can sell it at a profit when you’re done with it.
The best way to find a good auction is to ask the locals. However, if the person you’re sent to has the same surname as the person you just asked, watch out!
Does it work?
There are some very important questions you need to ask before you go signing anything. If you’re not confident in your knowledge of cars, find someone trustworthy who is, and get them to ask the questions for you. They’ll be able to make much better sense of the answers!
Hopefully the vehicle will have one, but don’t hold your breath! If you’ve got proof that the car has been looked after, then you’re onto a good one.
A high mileage can be offset by a good service history. However, if there’s a very big number on the clock and no record of the most recent service, be a little more cautious.
You need to know the type of insurance you’ll need, and how much it will cost.
The law states that you have to be taxed. This may be included, however, so make sure to ask.
The car needs to be registered in your name so your insurance company can cover you. Find out the necessary details and, if it’s arriving in a month’s time, have it sent to a forward address or a poste restante.
They’re usually stowed away in the glovebox, but just check to make sure there is one. It’ll have handy stuff about fuses, tyre pressure and all the bits you might have to replace.
This is the Australian equivalent of the British MOT, and may be easier to get in some states than others. If you buy a car in Western Australia, register it by phone in Southern Australia, then sell it in Queensland, you’ll find every state has a different price for the same thing. It’s worth ringing around to find yourself the best deal.
If you know nothing about cars, see if you can pay a local mechanic to come with you and check over the mechanical side of things. If not, there are a few things you can look at that will give you an indication of the vehicles wellbeing (and make sure to perform these checks in daylight!).
If the car has been sitting in the same spot for a while, check the ground beneath it for fluid leaks.
- An oil leak will produce a sticky, shiny puddle.
- Coolant leaks can vary between white and rust colours.
- Fuel leaks will stink, and are also prone to explode if you drop a cigarette butt on to them. We don’t recommend this.
- Water leaks might be hard to notice in a hot country, but with a hole in the radiator, it won’t be travelling far.
Look for rust and stressed areas around the doors. Rusty bodywork can fail the Roadworthy Certificate and prevent you getting insurance. Check for dents, and look over the whole body, since mattresses or large boxes in the rear can be used to hide holes and other problems.
Check the tyres for damage - this will include worn tread, bulges, cracks, foreign bodies and uneven wear (you’ll notice the wheels are misaligned).
Make sure all the wheel nuts are still there. Without them, wheels have a tendency to fall off when travelling at speed. This is a bad thing.
Check the lights. Driving at night is always fun, but being able to see where you’re going is a big help. Get a friend to make sure, and don’t forget to check the hazards!
Turn the steering wheel fully to both left and right. Do the wheels turn evenly, and far enough? If their angles don’t match, you’ve got a problem.
Check the seat belts to make sure they’re all there and aren’t frayed or old. Make sure the mounting bolts are nice and tight - you’ll find yourself flying through the windscreen if you crash and they’re loose,
The test drive
After making sure the car looks alright when stationary, you’ll need to check it when it’s in motion.
Check. The. Brakes.
It doesn’t get much more important than this. Dodgy brakes can be a death sentence, so make sure you’re completely happy with them. Ensure that the car doesn’t pull left or right when you brake. If you feel a vibration through the steering or the brake pedal, it’s likely that the brakes are worn and need replacing.
The handbrake is about as important as the regular brakes. Very important, especially if you’re planning on parking on a hill at any point. The last thing you want is for your new(ish) camper to roll down and embed itself in a happily parked Escort.
Make sure the clutch isn’t jerky and that it doesn’t slip - if you pull away or change gear and the engine revs go up unexpectedly, you need to get it checked out. Since they’re very expensive to replace, however, it’s probably easier to just find another car.
Make sure you go far enough and fast enough to check that all the gears work properly. Don’t forget a three point turn is a great way to check both reverse and the way they shift. Some cars won’t reverse. You don’t want a car that won’t reverse.
So, you want it?
First and foremost, don’t look keen straight away. They’ll hike the price up and you could find yourself substantially worse off. Instead, treat it like a game of poker. Express your interest, take their name, address, and number, and come back later. It’ll put them on the back foot, and also lets you know where they live so you can bring it back if there’s an immediate problem with it.
Don’t be afraid to haggle. If you’re buying from another backpacker, they’ll be keen to sell before they leave the country, and will often settle for less than their initial asking price.
Offer cash for a better price. It’s less hassle for them, but make sure there’s a Thomas Cook in town to get your cash through first!
If you are buying from backpackers, ask if they can leave all the tools, equipment and anything else they don’t need to take with them. It’ll save you having to buy too many extras yourself.
Extras worth taking
The car needs water just as much as you, especially if it breaks down in the middle of the Australian outback.
Not so much an optional extra as a necessity; without a couple of cheap, polystyrene ‘eskies’, how else can you keep the food and beer cold? You can fill them with ice at most petrol stations.
Spare fuel tank
If you don’t know where the next petrol station is, or if your car has a faulty fuel gauge, buying one of these really does make a lot of sense. If you ever run out of petrol, you’ll be thanking your lucky stars you remembered to fill the spare.
Simple enough - some good quality, multi-grade engine oil.
A great cure-all for so many technical problems. If in doubt, spray it and see what happens!
If you’re really keen on having all the right equipment, think about bringing along spare bulbs, spark plugs, a wire brush for the battery and a leatherman tool for all those fiddly bits.
Great Australian drives
Australia is big. Really big. Naturally, there are some incredible routes worth driving, so we’ve highlighted the best of the best for you right here.
The Great Ocean Road
The most famous drive in Australia is one of the World’s most scenic routes. Stretching 300km past rainforest, sunken ships and towering cliffs, the road winds from Torquay to Allansford and takes you past the photogenic rock formations of the Twelve Apostles, as well as the chance of whale-spotting at Warrnambool. You can’t say you’ve driven in Australia unless you’ve driven the Great Ocean Road!
The Pacific Coast Touring Route
The road from Sydney to Brisbane passes plenty to keep travellers occupied. Newcastle, two hours from Sydney, is the gateway to Hunter Valley, while Port Macquarie and Coffs Harbour are both great stops for water-sports enthusiasts. Byron Bay is a must-see for any true backpacker, and the resort city of Surfer’s Paradise has theme parks and golden beaches a-plenty.
The Stuart Highway
Running through the heart of the Australian outback from Darwin to Adelaide, this famed route takes you through Port Augusta, the entry to the arid Nullarbor plains, before striking out into the bush towards Alice Springs. There are plenty of side-trip opportunities, including the domes of Kata Tjuta, Uluru and King’s Canyon. Before reaching Darwin you’ll be able to see hot springs and rainforest at Katherine.
The Savannah Way
A massive 3,700km route, the Savannah Way trails from tropical Cairns to Broome, on the coast of the Indian Ocean. You’ll pass through grasslands and past magnificent rivers - but bear in mind some parts of the route are intended for 4WD vehicles only.
You can have your car serviced, but this may cause it to die of shock. It can be a lot cheaper to do the easy stuff yourself, and only take it to a garage when there’s no other option.
Before you leave home, ask a techie friend of yours to show you the way round an engine. The basic knowledge will be invaluable to you while you’re travelling. It might pay to take a course in basic car maintenance before you leave. Just in case you haven’t got time, however, we’ve highlighted the basic bits and pieces you should know.
The oil level
Check this while the engine is cool. Make sure you know where to find the dip-stick (and that isn’t the stupid kid that sits at the back of the class). Pull it out, clean it, then put it back in again. Make sure you do this on flat land, or you’ll get a false reading.
This is very important, since it’s the only contact between the car and the road (at least it ought to be!). The right pressures will be in the handbook for the car. If you’re filling the car beyond a normal weight, increase the pressure proportionally. If the air is very hot, let some out, since the hot air will expand.
This is usually a 50-50 mix of water and anti-freeze. It cools the engine, and is circulated by the radiator (that’s the big bug-catching bit at the front of the car). Never ever undo the radiator cap when the engine is on, as all the water will boil out. Let it cool, place a cloth over it, then twist it off slowly. If the car overheats, you’ll have an expensive repair job on your hands. If you get a small hole in the radiator, however, sealer should be available from most garages.
Brake fluid level
Make sure the level doesn’t drop too far. Side note: brake fluid is poisonous, highly flammable, and will strip the paint from your car if you spill it. Drinking it is not recommended.
There are usually one or two fuse boxes in the main part of the car, under the glove compartment or dash board. There should be a picture in the handbook which will tell you what is what. These protect the car's electrical circuits from being overloaded. If an electrical part of the car doesn't work, check the appropriate fuse. If it's melted in the middle, it needs replacing. If there's no handbook, you'll find it with trial and error.
Before buying, take a look under the bonnet. If there are a lot of loose wires, don’t buy the car. Make sure everything is connected properly, and most importantly, make sure they’re all in their clips. The heat from the engine can melt the insulation if they aren’t clipped away, so spray every wire you can see with WD40 as well.
If the fan belt is slack, it’ll slip and cause a squealing noise in the engine, particularly when you’re accelerating. If it’s very slack, or breaks, you can get a flat battery and, on some cars, the engine can overheat.
Brakes, bulbs and battery
Get them checked by a professional at a garage!
We realise this might seem like a lot, but all the major jobs can be taken care of when you stop to get petrol. Give the windscreen a wash, fill up the radiator and windscreen sprays with water, and grab the oil, ice and snacks from the shop. Easy!
Other useful tips
Buy a notebook
Every time you stop to fill up, note down the mileage, quantity of petrol and cost. It’ll help you keep track.
Note down when you fill up with water, and how much you used.
If you get any parts replaced, or any maintenance performed, note it down.
Anything else you do or spend money on should be recorded. If you’re going through fuel or water too fast you’ll be able to tell straight away, and it also makes the individual running cost of a shared car much easier to sort out.
If you get something stuck in your tyre, don’t pull it out. Pulling it out will mean a flat tyre and a hefty push to the nearest garage.
Both cars and men need nice tight nuts. Make sure the wheel nuts are secure, so the wheel doesn’t fall off while you’re driving. However, don’t overtighten them, as you might need to put the wheel off to replace a flat tyre.
A ‘car kit’ is a sensible purchase - they carry all the relevant tools you’ll need, and they’re generally very small packs.
If there’s blue smoke pouring from the exhaust, you’re burning too much oil. This can be expensive to fix, so have it checked at a garage or sell it quickly!
Inflate your spare tyre as much as you can at your first garage stop. If you’re out for a long drive, especially out in middle of the Aussie wilderness, make sure it’s full. They’re often poor-quality tyres, but they could be a lifesaver.
If you’re going through water too quickly, there might be little holes in the radiator you can’t see. If you’re unsure, grab a bottle of sealant from the garage - check the instructions, since you can run some through the coolant system and let it do the job for you!
Insulating tape is handy for taping wires away from hot bits of the engine, or for taping over wires where the insulation has already been melted. Its also useful for taping on broken bumpers or wing mirrors. Don’t leave home without it!
If you have a blown bulb then your dashboard indicator lights will flash faster than usual. Get them changed at the next garage unless you’re totally comfortable with doing the job yourself.
Selling it again
First off, try selling it for the same price you bought it for. It might actually work.
Put posters and flyers in nearby hostels and supermarkets, and anywhere else you think might work.
Put big posters in the car windows.
Use our section on buying your car to identify what other backpackers are looking for and need to know.
At the end of the day, you need to sell that car. If you don’t, you’re going to end up giving it away or swapping it for a cold beer. Selling the car may take time, so give it time. Don’t turn up two days before your flight leaves the country and expect to be surrounded by buyers. Give it at least a week or two.
Sell it at a major entry point for backpackers, like Cairns or Sydney. You’ll find plenty more buyers in Sydney than Byron Bay.
Don’t try to make a profit unless you’re convinced you have an amazing car. A high price will put people off. On the other hand, "Give me a reasonable price and it’s yours" will have you surrounded by buyers. Ask them for a sensible price and work from there.
If you bought your car for $700, try to sell it for $700. If you need a certain amount of money, then add on a couple of hundred dollars and let them haggle you down - they’ll feel like they’re getting a better deal. If it eventually sells for $600, then you’ve done well. Accept the fact it’s given you tons of use, has saved you a lot more than $100 and has been worth so much more than that.
A car is a fantastic way to see Australia - just make sure you’re careful and don’t pick the wrong one! If you do it right, there’s no reason you can’t have the trip of your dreams.