Traveling to Australia was a dream come true. It was always a bucket list item for me, but I never knew if it would actually happen. I had checked airfare prices years ago on a whim and saw prices from the United States upward of $2000 per ticket, so I had determined this trip was not going to happen for a very long time, if ever.
But then it did!!
Have you ever used Kayak.com? I love this website!! It has a super nifty explore feature that I love to use. It lets you search airfare prices worldwide from any airport you want to depart. You don't have to put a destination in either. It plots airfare prices all over the world for you to see. We live in close proximity to Philadelphia International Airport and Newark International Airport. I often explore prices and possibilities for fun. I'm sort of a dork like that. Where can we fly from Philadelphia in July for under $200? Where can we fly from Newark in July for around $500?
One day last fall I saw airfare on Air China from Newark, NJ to Sydney, Australia for $680 per person. WHAT?!?! I thought my eyes were broken or there was a glitch because that price couldn't be right. But, Air China's website confirmed the fare was legit. Still, it was TOO good to be true. I spent a few days researching the airline for safety. Surely something must be wrong if airfare was that discounted! I couldn't find anything concerning besides people complaining about the food or lack of movies in English. It was Air China after all. I checked hotel pricing in Sydney for July. July is winter and off-season in Australia, so hotel rates were super reasonable. Was the weather that bad that time of year? What was I missing? Why were the fares so low? Other airlines charged over double that. I was very skeptical.
On the flip side, could this be meant to be? Sure, the flight was in coach. Sure, it connected in Beijing, China and had an 11-hr layover. Sure, we'd be on a plane for 26 hours. But, it was so inexpensive! It was the opportunity of a lifetime. Would I ever have this opportunity again? I mulled this over for days. I wanted to make it happen but it was so overwhelming. I've never traveled for longer than a week at a time but this trip would require more than a week. The cost would be way too much to spend two weeks away with hotels and meals, but the opportunity was so exciting!
I got creative. If we skipped our usual week-long summer beach house and a few weeks of summer camps for the kids, plus skipped our annual spring break trip, we'd offset the cost of the trip. There was a spreadsheet involved with a cost analysis for my husband to review. I am a total nerd about these things. It worked! He was in! How could we pass this up? We decided to spend two full weeks in Australia in early July. Oh, and because our kids were only 8 and 11, they qualified for child fares! Our family of four was able to secure round trip airfare from Newark, NJ to Sydney, Australia for $637.50 per person. Unbelievable!!
Planning 14-nights in Australia took a lot of time and research but I had eight months. First action item: what travel documents would we need. Passports (we had) and visas (applications were simple, inexpensive, and online). Phew. Next, I googled "Must-Do Australia Itineraries" and made lists of possibilities. The list included The Great Barrier Reef near Cairns, The Great Ocean Drive near Melbourne, holding a koala (only legal in Queensland or South Australia), whale watching in the Sydney Harbour, seeing kangaroos, visiting Ayers Rock and the Outback (near Alice Springs). I had no idea where any of these cities were OR how far they were from each other, so I googled "size of Australia compared to United States" and found the picture below. This made planning SO much easier for me. I quickly learned that Sydney is about as far away from the Great Barrier Reef as Florida is to Washington D.C., and that Ayers Rock is as far as away from Sydney as Colorado is to Florida. The Great Ocean Drive begins in Melbourne, hours away from Sydney. Clearly we weren't going to be able to do all of our must-dos in two weeks time!
But, what was possible? I love a good challenge! If we wanted to visit places outside of Sydney within a two-week time frame, we'd have to fly to them. Is it possible to fly from Sydney to Melbourne, then fly to Cairns? How much would it cost? Google was my best friend. I found that Virgin Australia and JetStar had very reasonable and inexpensive flights to Melbourne and Cairns from Sydney. Airfare was reasonable enough to spend some time in Sydney, fly to Melbourne, drive the Great Ocean Drive (and spend a few nights in places along the way), drive back to Melbourne, fly to Cairns, spend a few days there, and fly back to Sydney before heading back to the US. The Outback would not be part of this trip, but we were okay with that. I made the map below to give us a visual. I included the typical average temperatures and nearby airports, too.
Once we settled on our itinerary we had to decide how long to spend in each city. TripAdvisor.com was my hero! I used it to become familiar with each area we were visiting. For example, I knew we'd want to tour the Sydney Opera House but I had no idea about Bondi Beach or the whales that came into the Sydney Harbour in July! I knew the Great Ocean Road started in Melbourne and was declared one of the most breathtaking drives on the planet, but I didn't know about the daily Pelican feedings in San Remo or the Penguin March on Phillip Island. I didn't know how long it would take to drive this road or where we should stop. I knew the Great Barrier Reef was one of the Seven Wonders of the World, but I didn't know about the Skyrail Rainforest which had a koala sanctuary, kangaroos, and wallabies and they let you hold the koalas! I discovered all these tours and attractions by visiting TripAdvisor and exploring each area's "Things to Do." Then, I discussed the possibilities with my family and we picked our favorites. We mapped out a rough itinerary in order to determine how much time we'd need in each city. Then I booked our Australian flights, deciding to fly from Sydney to Melbourne, Melbourne to Cairns, and Cairns to Sydney.
Once flights we booked, I focused on hotels. Laundry facilities and free wifi were a must. Considering all the flights we'd be taking and all the luggage we'd need to lug around coupled with temperatures ranging from 44 to 75 degrees in the areas we were visiting, packing light seemed impossible! Finding places to stay with laundry facilities would make packing lighter a heck of a lot easier. Enter TripAdvisor again! I love TripAdvisor! I searched hotels with laundry facilities, read tons of reviews, compared prices, and considered what was important to my family. I chose the Quay West Suites in Sydney. Not only did we get a 1-bedroom suite with a view of the Harbour, we had a kitchenette and personal washer and dryer. Since it was off-season, this 5-star facility was truly a steal. Not to mention the US to Australian Dollar exchange rate was in our favor. We stayed in a 1-bedroom suite for under $275 per night.
I chose the Quay West Suites in Melbourne and continued to use TripAdvisor to determine where to stay along the Great Ocean Drive. It's a 3-5 hour drive depending on how far you want to go and where you want to stop. We settled on Appollo Bay and Warranmbool. The places we stayed, Chris's Beacon Point Villa (Oprah's stayed here!), and Girt By the Sea, were lovely and charming accommodations. In Cairns, we decided to stay at the Jack & Newell Holiday Apartments. All of our accommodations had laundry facilities and 2 separate bedrooms and bathrooms (if the thought of doing laundry on vacation makes you squeamish, it does to me too, but throwing in a load at night before bed and folding it in the AM was super easy, AND we didn't come home with 10 loads of laundry to do. It was WELL worth it)! We decided to rent a car in Melbourne and Cairns. We didn't need a car in Sydney. We used Uber or walked everywhere with ease.
Now time to tackle that 11-hour layover in Beijing on the way to Sydney. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the Beijing airport had hotel options or sleeping pods you could rent by the hour. Worst case scenario, we could go this route. But, the 144-hour Visa Free Transit in Beijing option really caught my eye. How'd I find it? Literally by googling "what to do during long layover in Beijing." (Apparently we weren't the first travelers with long layovers! HA!) China had recently implemented a policy allowing travelers with long layovers to tour Beijing and other cities visa -free, before leaving for their next destination! You may think I'm crazy to want to venture out into Beijing, but I can't begin to tell you how epic and meant-to-be it all felt. Could we see the Great Wall of China en route to Sydney? Was this even possible? A lot more googling and research later, I found a ton of reviews on TripAdvisor from others who have done similar half-day visa-free tours while waiting for their next flight. It was a common thing to do! Who knew? I booked a private tour with a company who would pick us up (and drop us back off) at the airport within the 8 hour time-frame we needed. I sent them a deposit via Paypal and communicated only through email. I was skeptical but so many others had good experiences with this tour company and they only required a $60 deposit. I was super nervous to get through Immigration in China but it was super easy. This part of our trip was nothing short of amazing! Kevin, our driver, was waiting for us with a sign at the Baggage Claim area and about 90 minutes later we were standing on the Great Wall of China. It was breathtaking! Afterward, he drove us through Beijing and let us walk to the Forbidden City at our request (even though it was late, closed, and there wasn’t really anything to see). He took us by the Olympic Park and some other fun areas. We were in China and we wanted to experience the city even if it meant just driving by some popular areas! Yes, we'd just flown 14-hours and we had no idea what time or day it was, but we all motored through and it was perfection. When we got back to the Beijing airport, we had just enough time to clear security and get a bite to eat before boarding our next flight.
Speaking of that flight, it was a total of 42 hours of travel door-to-door. The first flight from Newark to Beijing was long but it wasn't that awful because we were so excited, prepared, and slept on and off. It was 14 hours. The flight from Beijing to Sydney was about 11 hours. It was breeze because we were all utterly exhausted after touring Beijing. Plus, I was determined to make traveling as easy on us as possible. I purchased compression socks for everyone. Everyone got their own neck pillow (and I read a ton of reviews on Amazon before picking one)! I didn't want to rely on airline entertainment or food, so I bought refurbished iPads with enough memory to download 24 hours of movies and Netflix/Amazon Prime series for each of us (if this sounds extravagant, we already had two, so buying two more considering the discounted airfare made it justifiable). We packed all of our favorite snacks to bring on-board. We had A LOT of food.
Coming back our layover in Beijing wasn't as long, but we had enough time to get some food and massages at the airport. I highly recommend this if you have time! Our iPads were fully stocked again with new movies and entertainment for the trip home. We had our compression socks, neck pillows and favorite snacks again. We slept off and on. There were times we gathered near the bathrooms just to stretch and walk around.
What about jet lag? Australia was 14-hours ahead of our usual time zone in the U.S., but our bodies adjusted very quickly. Adjusting was a lot easier than we'd expected. After traveling that long you just lose track of what time its supposed to be and just go with the flow. Hands down, it wasn't half as bad as we'd imagined, and we'd all do it again! Yes, we would happily take the trip over and over. We loved it that much!
How did I stay organized during the trip? You know those photobooks you can order from Shutterfly or Snapfish? I made one with all our reservations and carried it with me at all times. I had electronic copies on my phone, but this book kept me organized and confident knowing I had everything in one place. It included flights, hotel reservations, vouchers for tours, car rental reservations and a rough draft itinerary.
My biggest surprise at the end of the trip? We didn't break the bank. In fact, when I compared our one week stay at a deluxe Disney World resort a few years prior, we didn't spend that much more traveling to the other side of the world! This included our private Beijing tour, activities, and meals! We walked the Great Wall of China and swam in the Great Barrier Reef. We saw the Southern Crux Constellation which is never visible from the middle or northern skies. We spotted koalas in trees and got to hold one, too! We pet kangaroos and saw tons of wallabies. We befriended a Maori Wrasse named Wally! We tried Snuba (a cross between scuba and snorkeling). We saw hundreds of penguins do their daily march from the ocean at sunset to their homes. We met the kindest Australian people. It was an epic, amazing, magnificent, beautiful, meaningful, and downright life-changing trip for our family.
If you're looking for a family adventure, add Australia to your list! Domestic travel in Australia is a breeze. Seriously, as an American you'll be pleasantly surprised how simple it is to travel throughout the country by air.
If you are interested in our complete day-by-day itinerary, I'll happily share it all with you. The trip was pure perfection.
Thanks for reading!
OUR AMAZING AUSTRALIAN ADVENTURE