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By this Author: majito

Buses in Australia - taking an East Coast tour

East Coast Touring Programs

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Taking a tour with the same people for 12-14-days is something to be seriously considered

  • you may have limited time
  • you may like the idea of everything being paid for up-front
  • you may want someone to organise everything for you

Let me define a tour: a fixed amount of days; you cannot get on and off the bus where you choose; accommodation and most meals are included, and you travel with the same people for the entire trip. It's a fairly laid back way to travel for those with limited time. You could be on a working holiday visa and have a great job in Sydney or Melbourne so you just want to get the east coast over and done with. Tours can be a fantastic way to see places, but they will probably cost you a little more money.

The two tours I like best on the east coast are run by Top Deck and Adventure Tours Australia. They're both 14-days long. You can start in Cairns and head south to Sydney, or start in Sydney and head to Cairns. Personally I'd prefer to finish in Cairns: it's a laid back town without all the stress and rush of a big city. You can ease out of your holiday without too much worry.

Both top Deck and Adventure Tours have trips that include the word "Sun": Top Deck names the tour "Island Suntanner", and Adventure Tours is named "Suncatcher". Not very original, but it’s not about the name, it’s about the content.

PRICE: Top Deck's high-season price is $263 cheaper than Adventure Tours ($2450 v $2713).

INCLUDED ACTIVITIES: Adventure Tours includes a surf lesson, a Fraser Island 4WD trip and a Whitsunday Islands sailing trip. This adds up to around $400; however, Top Deck includes a Whitsunday Islands sailing trip, travel to Fraser Island, an Aboriginal dance show and dinner, and a trip on the Rainforest Cable-Car in Cairns. Top Deck offers a one day 4WD guided trip of Fraser Island. The Adventure Tours 4WD trip is what's known as "tag-a-long." Simply put: you drive your own 4WD with 4-6 people inside. Your driver/guide takes the lead vehicle and you follow them. Both companies offer good accommodation on Fraser Island - NO CAMPING, which is a bonus.

In my opinion it's hard to fault the included activities except to say that Top Deck include more of them, and the tour is still cheaper so Top Deck offers more value here.

MEALS: Top Deck includes 13 breakfasts, 1 lunch, and 6 dinners. Adventure Tours offers 11 breakfasts, 8 dinners, and 4 lunches. So overall Adventure Tours offers more meals, but it's unfair to judge the tours on this due to the circumstances of where you are. To explain: sometimes it’s better not to include dinner in some places. It encourages you to explore the town and try different things. In my mind the one thing you always do together is eat breakfast so to me more breakfasts is the most important thing.

ACCOMMODATION: Top Deck wins this one easily simply because they don't use any backpacker accommodation. Adventure Tours uses backpacker accommodation just about everywhere they can yet they still charge more for the tour. Tours are supposed to be more upmarket and comfortable than backpacking so why Adventure Tours chooses a lower standard of accommodation is a mystery. I've been involved in tours for a long time and one thing I know is that you don't mix tour style accommodation with backpacker accommodation. To be fair some backpacker accommodation in Australia is fantastic and worthy of tour customers, but it's still called a backpackers hostel. Both companies offer upgrades to twin and double rooms, but again an upgrade in a backpacker hostel may mean very little in the way of comfort. At the end of the day, during the night, and in the morning it's still a backpacker’s hostel.

OVERNIGHT STOPS: Top Deck starts from Sydney with a long drive to Byron Bay. Once there you spend two nights in Byron drive a couple of hours north to the Gold Coast for another couple of nights. So after the long drive it's a nice easy next few days. Adventure Tours drives from Sydney to a place called Arrawara (Spot-X Surf Camp), which is about 3-hours south of Byron Bay making it slightly less of a long day. They too spend two nights in Byron then spend another day travelling to Rainbow Beach. Both companies service the best locations on the east coast. Some days long, some days short, and some days no travel at all. They both offer excellent itineraries.

STAFF: Top Deck tours carry two crew: A driver, and a trip leader. Adventure Tours offer just one driver/guide. Given that Adventure Tours have half the crew of Top Deck you'd think that Adventure Tours would be cheaper, but as I've pointed out, they aren't. Having a driver and a trip leader on trip that covers such a vast distance is a good thing. It's also something you might expect on a proper tour. Having a non-driving guide means they're free to spend more time with you in the evenings and during the day. It means they're 100% focussed on you and your holiday. Having one driver/guide, as Adventure Tours do, means a lot of work for one person. They surely must have restrictions on socialising in the evening so they're safe to drive the next day. I'm not saying that Adventure Tours is any less of a tour because of this, what I'm saying is that I believe you'd be better looked after with one person driving and one person looking after you.

After closely reviewing both these 14-day East Coast tours my conclusion is that Top Deck is better value for money. Not just because they are cheaper, not at all. Accommodation: no backpacker hostels; staff: two crew instead of Adventure Tours one crew. I must also add that Top Deck use 37-seat coaches while Adventure Tours advertise 24-seat minibuses. I have heard that Adventure Tours are moving away from 24-seat minibuses to a more comfortable 14-seat minivan, which is a good idea. In terms of comfort I prefer coaches.
You might be lucky to walk into a travel agent that recommended both these trips. Very lucky. Most would only offer one or the other. So choose carefully and be sure to ask lots of questions, especially about where you sleep at night.

Happy Travels

Posted by majito 19:17 Archived in Australia Tagged island bus_sailing_time_planning_ experience_east backpacking_tours_east coast_buses_travel_whitsundays_ Comments (0)

Buses in Australia - Oz Experience

All about Oz Experience

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Important: Oz Experience and Kiwi Experience are owned by different companies. They were once owned by the same company, but this all changed in 2005 when Adventure Tours Australia bought Oz Experience from THL New Zealand. It's also important that you don't compare the two companies too closely. The reasons are as follows

  • New Zealand is a small country, which generally means much shorter driving times. It means you spend more time off the bus doing stuff during the day. In Australia you have to spend a lot of time on the bus.
  • Kiwi Experience has some excellent competitors in New Zealand: Stray Travel Network and Magic Bus are the two best ones. This competition means you have to work very hard to set yourself apart. In Australia the only real competition on the East Coast for Oz Experience is Greyhound

Oz Experience has struggled over the years to separate itself from Greyhound, and it still does. It's a product that relies heavily on travel agents and good marketing to convince people to pay the extra money. The product changes a lot as Oz Experience searches for ways to find a bigger audience, and this confuses people and creates uncertainty with customers. It’s not a product that walks off the shelves like a simple Greyhound ticket, yet it offers little more than a Greyhound ticket and can cost $300 more than a Greyhound ticket. So, as the Oz Experience marketing people like to say, "Why Oz Experience?"

Oz Experience tells us on their website that "our guides and meeting other travellers are by far the best things about Oz Experience." What this means is that the guides are probably fun and entertaining people who can keep you amused, they will help you to choose and book activities along the way, and they will keep you informed about the country and culture, etc. They say in the brochure that the guide is "your own personal travel agent" so the assumption is they are trained and paid like a travel agent (earn commission so are motivated to sell-sell-sell!). Most of the guides would not have experienced the trips first-hand so some aren't really that well equipped to sell. My advice is to talk to other travellers (online or face-to-face) who have done it, or make a few comparisons first, or use a trained travel agent. Overall though I think a well informed tour guide who also drives the bus and helps you with the day-to-day affairs of travelling is a good feature. Some travellers like someone to hold their hands and tell them what to do, others not so much.

If you can be bothered listening (ipods seem to occupy peoples ears more than useful info these days) you will learn a lot about Australia from the Oz Experience guides. A good guide book like Lonely Planet is just as useful though. Guides cannot talk all day and the travelling days are very long in Australia. Based on that it’s hard to make a call on whether or not a good guide is better than a good guide book. In places like the Northern Territory a good guide is worth every dollar as outback travel can be a risky business.

Oz Experience includes some activities in the price of the normal ticket: A surf lesson of about 2.5 hours duration, and a goat rodeo and whip cracking and mechanical bull at a cattle station. Whether you like it or not you are paying for these things. Oz Experience also says it uses comfortable coaches yet the brochure is full of photos of small minibuses. I think you'll find they use a mixture of vehicles both small and larger.

Earlier I said Oz Experience east coast tickets were up to $300 more than a similar Greyhound express ticket. I also said it was hard to justify to customers why they should pay more for essentially the same thing. Oz Experience it seems agrees with this so in January 2011 is launching the "Oz Express" ticket to try and nab some customers from the express bus market. It’s a ticket with restrictions on where you can get on and off the bus, and it has no surf lessons or farm activities included. It's certainly cheaper, a whole $295 cheaper and makes me wonder why you'd then bother to pay $295 more for the full-priced Oz Experience ticket. What Oz Experience might be saying by launching an express service is that we can no longer justify charging $300 more than Greyhound for things that have little value in the eyes of the customers. So what are the restrictions on the Oz Express ticket?

  • On day-1 between Sydney and Byron Bay you cannot get off the bus at the Surf Camp. I'm not sure if this means you can get off everywhere else except the Surf Camp. (The Surf Camp is 550klms from Sydney and 200 or so klms from Byron Bay.)
  • You cannot get off the bus at the Cattle Station. You must keep going to Airlie Beach

To anyone reading this blog and not yet travelled in Australia these restrictions probably make little sense. Take it from me that they're not a big deal at all except to say that that both make for extremely long travel days.

So, why else would you buy an Oz Experience ticket? Many travel companies make bold statements about things offer very little value to the average traveller. They seem important but really these are things that you could easily figure out after 1-2 days travelling. The Australia travel forum on this website is filled with questions and answers on the same things over and over again. It’s an incredibly useful tool this website because by answering simple questions it saves travellers a lot of headaches and money. It’s better than your average backpacker travel agent because backpacker travel agents put a spin on things to make money so makes them seem more complex than they actually are. Backpacker Travel Agents, in my opinion, offer little or no value in simple transactions. A simple transaction to me is a Greyhound Express ticket. A more complex transaction is justifying why you would pay extra to travel on Oz Experience, is it simply because your travel agent told you to?

Oz Experience also offers the "Oz Experience Wristband." They sell it as some sort of VIP pass to bars and nightclubs and food outlets and free luggage storage. (Don't confuse it with the long established VIP backpacker’s card.) When I checked the URL address for the Oz Experience VIP list of discounts it said "page under construction." One thing you'll find everywhere on the east coast backpacker trail is discounts, look at the list of cards on offer: VIP, Nomads, YHA, ISIC and they all offer thousands of discounts. You'll probably end up with one of these cards and they are very useful. The wristband appears to offer nothing more than a Backpacker card (or actually nothing on the website at the time of writing this). In a country drowning with backpacker discounts Oz Experience may have to try harder to create incentives to buy bus tickets.

Travelling the east coast by bus is easy. So it’s one thing you should look to do as cheaply and comfortably as possible. It's a means of getting to some amazing destinations such as the Whitsundays and Far North Queensland. If you want the journey to be a little more interesting and you want some help along the way then Oz Experience might be for you. My opinion is that if you want a lot of help and lots of inclusions such as accommodation and food then do a proper tour with someone like Top Deck or Contiki. The area between an express bus and a fully inclusive tour is a tough sell hence Oz Experience moving to compete with Greyhound with Oz Express tickets. Has this made Oz Experience easier to buy or sell? In my opinion no, it’s made it harder.

The Oz Experience trips that run south from Sydney to Melbourne and on to Adelaide and Alice Springs and Darwin are run by Adventure Tours Australia and are more like tours and flexible hop-on hop-trips. So really can't be compared with the Oz Experience east coast trip. More about those trips later.

Happy Travels

Posted by majito 09:18 Archived in Australia Tagged coast bus_sailing_time_planning_ backpacking_choosing_greyhound_ backpacking_choosing_oz experience_east Comments (0)

Buses in Australia - Greyhound

All about Greyhound

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I'm not sure if the last blog painted a good picture of the East Coast for those wishing to travel by bus. I hope so. If not feel free to email me with any questions.

An overview of the bus companies that service the East Coast of Australia between Sydney in Cairns


Greyhound dominates the express bus scene in the backpacker market. It’s a simple product and a simple service and its value for money. They depart between most destinations at least twice a day. They have big comfortable 48-50 seat coaches, they have toilets on board some, and if they don't they stop regularly enough to stretch your legs and have a pee. The drivers are professional, they don't say much but then they're not paid to. They're paid to drive and get you safely from one place to another.

Greyhound doesn’t pretend to be anything but an express bus service. You can easily book Greyhound online or by telephone. Once you start travelling the rebooking system is very easy. They offer backpacker discounts if you hold certain cards like YHA, VIP, Nomads MAD cards, and the Aussie Saver Card. If you're a student and hold an ISIC card you'll also get a discount. Greyhound always has special deals on their website so it’s worth checking. An example is mates-rates where you can buy one ticket and get 50% off the 2nd ticket (check the website for details). Many of the deals offered by Greyhound are only available within Australia. Take a minute to read the conditions of travel.

A typical Greyhound pass between Sydney and Cairns is the Mini- Traveller: It’s around $320 aussie dollars and includes discounts on some accommodation. The pass is valid for 90-days unlimited travel in one direction only. In my opinion this offers great value. Especially so because Greyhound have at least two services each day between destinations. A typical day’s travel could be Sydney to Byron Bay: leave in the morning at 7am and arrive in Byron at 9.25pm that night. A long day, but hey, welcome to Australia. If you left at 7pm you'd arrive at 8am the next morning ready for breakfast and some sun and surf. The overnight bus is popular with budget travellers as it saves you a nights’ accommodation (around $27.00).

Between Sydney and Cairns you'll probably travel on a bus for around 7 to 8-days over however long it is you are travelling for. Based on that and using a Mini-traveller pass you're spending about $46 per-day on transport, which is quite good value.

Greyhound also has national passes that cover the entire eastern half of Australia, and whole of Australia. (Eastern half? draw a line south from Darwin to Adelaide. Everything east of there is what I call the "eastern half.) I won't cover national passes until much later.

Is there a downside to Greyhound? Not really. Like I said in the beginning it’s a simple A-B to service that takes you everywhere you need to go on the East Coast. They have regular departures, and they have a good mix of brand new and not so new buses. The buses (or coaches as we call nice buses in Oz) are comfortable and reliable. They have a variety of bus passes to suit everyone’s taste, and they keep things interesting with a lot of deals going. Most important is that Greyhound doesn't pretend to be anything but an express bus service for budget travellers. In my opinion the tickets are priced very fairly. They don't try and hit you with extras when you're on-board and there are no hidden costs. Thousands upon thousands of budget travellers use Greyhound every year and do so without complaint.

Australia is a huge country probably better suited to air travel than anything else, but you can't see the countryside from the air. You can't smell the desert air or feel the heat of a tropical day or taste the salt of the Pacific Ocean. If you're worried that travelling on Greyhound means less chance of meeting people I wouldn't be. You will meet people, and if you don't like them get off and take the next bus.

I'll cover Oz Experience and Premier Motor Services next time.

Posted by majito 15:19 Archived in Australia Tagged backpacking_choosing_greyhound_ Comments (0)

The East Coast by Bus

Does it matter which company I use?

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The distance between Sydney and Cairns is roughly 2,800klms or 1,739 miles. It's a bit hard to put into perspective until you're actually on your way and have completed your first big drive or bus journey. You quickly learn all the tricks of how to stay entertained over long distances - ipods are as essential as a comfortable seat and a book.

There's a lot of coastline and beaches and towns along the way. A lot of backpacker hostels and a lot of good things to see and do; some free, some not. There’s really only one main highway for bus travellers and all of the main bus companies stop at all the hotspots. To explain hotspot: a place that 99% of backpackers stop due to some sort of unique activity or history of being fun, and welcoming to backpackers. Places like the Whitsunday Islands and Fraser Island.

So ask yourself these questions

1. Do I care what happens on-board the bus? For example - Do I care if we play games to pass the time or am I happy to do my own thing?
2. Do I want someone to tell me about local history and culture and point out items of interest? Or am I happy with my Lonely Planet book or app or whatever guide book or device I’m carrying
3. Is it essential that I travel with other backpackers? Or am I happy to meet people along the way no matter how I travel.
4. Do I have to have buses departing everyday for maximum flexibility? Or am I happy with random days.
5. I really want to be able to travel overnight to save money on accommodation. Or, actually, I don’t care if I travel at night or not. Or, I only want to travel during the day.
6. Do I only want to travel to places of my own choosing? Or, I’m happy to go where the bus stops for the night
7. A couple of hundred dollars extra doesn’t bother me. Or, it does bother me: that’s 8-9 nights accommodation
8. I have limited time so I need daily or even 2x daily departures. Or, I have all the time in the world. I’m in no hurry

The average travel agent probably wouldn’t ask you most of these questions. I’ll talk more about what value travel agents do or don’t add a bit later on.

The most important things to remind yourself about travelling the East Coast of Australia is that
a. It’s incredibly well set up for travellers and working holiday makers, and
b. It can be expensive if you make the wrong choices too early, and
c. It’s more about what happens off the bus than on the bus. In other words, there’s so much of nothing in Australia. You can travel for hundreds of kilometres and nothing really changes. Quite the opposite of New Zealand (and the countries should never be too closely compared)But this is part of the appeal to many people, especially outback travellers
So ask yourself these questions. I’ll get into the detail of the bus companies in my next post. The bus companies being Greyhound, Premier, and Oz Experience. I’ll also cover tours such as 14-day tours of the East Coast where just about everything’s included. These tours can be a very good choice for the right person.

Posted by majito 11:58 Archived in Australia Tagged bus_sailing_time_planning_ backpacking_choosing Comments (0)

Travelling the East Coast of Australia

East Coast Travel

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Ok, firstly I need to say why I can be bothered writing about such a well travelled route. Thousands of people have made the journey from Sydney to Cairns or Cairns to Sydney. Most end up in much the same places for roughly the same length of time yet those who haven't travelled are still confused. And understandably so: time = money and with the Aussie dollar higher than ever people from the northern hemisphere have less to spend. This surely means less time? Perhaps. Too soon to tell?

A lot of posts on TP answer the same questions about the same things. It's all useful information to a lot of different people. Some people are clearly very, very budget focussed, and some not so. Some are more interested in value for money as opposed to rock-bottom price trips and bus tickets. When giving information one has to be careful that they understand that people are usually prepared to pay a little more for quality, and if the price looks too good to be true it probably isn't true. Australia and New Zealand are a long way from anywhere. Chances are you won't be coming back for a 2nd-look; you won't do a 2nd sailing trip in the Whitsundays if the first one was rubbish.

So let me put my credentials on the table: I've been the General Manager of Oz Experience / Adventure Tours Australia on the East Coast for 3-years and 6-months. I am no longer. Previously I was General Manager of a chain of Backpacker retail travel stores specialising on the East Coast and the Outback. I've sold a lot of bus tickets and sold a lot of travel products. I'm not biased towards Oz Experience or Adventure Tours at all. In fact in the past I've talked people out of doing Oz Experience because it wasn't quite right for them. I've been involved in campervans and flights and buying and selling cars; working holidays and just about everything to do with backpacking in Australia. There are no 100% right products for everyone. But there is a good start and I'm going to attempt to give people the right start.

That's it for now. Next time I'm going to cover bus travel.



Posted by majito 14:19 Archived in Australia Tagged bus_sailing_time_planning_ backpacking_choosing_greyhound_ Comments (0)

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