A Quick History of Travelling to Australia

Written by: David Owen


The journey from the UK to Australia is a rite of passage for backpackers. As one of the longest air routes in the world, it can feel like a daunting prospect.

But it used to be much, much worse.

Discovery and Colonisation

The 1770s

The first European to make the journey was Dutch navigator Willem Janszoon in 1606, though arguably the first to actually land was James Cook in 1770.

HMS Endeavour

It took Cook’s HMS Endeavour a couple of years to get there (though he was busy along the way), at which point he promptly crashed it into the Great Barrier Reef. After some makeshift repairs, the expedition left Australia and docked at Batavia (now Jakarta), before heading home. In the seven months it took to return to the UK, 35 members of the 94-strong crew died of disease.

It’s fair to say Australia wasn’t exactly a holiday destination back then.


Between 1788 and 1868, some 162,000 convicts were shipped over to Australia. No special ships were built for purpose, meaning the prisoners were often crammed into decrepit cargo ships.

A Convict Ship

So many died of dysentery and other diseases in the first decade that the government was forced to provide improved health and safety, meaning convicts often had it better than emigrants booking passage on private vessels. Speaking of which…

Private Travel


Any emigrants to Australia in the 19th century arrived by sailing ship. Vulnerable to the vagaries of weather, the trip could take as long as four months, with top of the line clipper ships sometimes halving that to two.

The emigrant ship Marco Polo

Travellers in steerage (the equivalent of economy class) were housed in the lowest deck, often without light or ventilation, and were drafted for daily chores like cooking and cleaning. Disease was rife, and a fire almost certainly meant death.


By the turn of the century the journey had become a bit more comfortable. Steam ships could complete the voyage in around 40 days, and their larger size allowed steerage class small cabins.

A White Star Line steam ship

There was also more deck space, offering richer passengers sunbathing and games. Imagine it a bit like the Titanic, but with even stricter class division and with lower odds of an iceberg fender bender.


Conditions took a bit of a step backwards in the wake of WWII, as huge numbers of displaced people flocked to Australia for a fresh start. To meet demand, troop ships were refitted to cram as many people aboard as possible. Steerage had to make do with triple decked bunks and toilet troughs.

The Fairsea ship

Things improved considerably as brand new ships were built, but journey times were rarely less than a month. It was time for air travel to change all that.

1970s – 2000s

A Qantas flight

The last ship carrying emigrants to Australia made the voyage in 1977. The advent of long range aircraft cut travelling time to days rather than months, so the trip no longer needed to be a permanent move; Down Under was now a holiday destination for Europeans.

Nowadays you can expect the fastest flights from London to Sydney to take around 22 hours, with a stop along the way. That’s quite an improvement in the space of a century.

The Future

It seems inevitable that within the next couple of years we’ll see nonstop flights from the UK to Australia. Qantas aims to offer the route before the end of 2017. This would further cut journey time by several hours.

Which all means there’s really no excuse not to start planning your gap year in Australia!

So there’s no excuse not to start planning your trip to Australia!

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