How to get paid $6000 to have the true backpacker experience in Australia

Australia is too expensive. That's the common complaint from younger travellers when it comes to exploring our own backyard.

This country is pricey, particularly when you compare it to traditional backpacker favourites such as Thailand or Vietnam. It's also large and sometimes difficult to travel around.

Right now though, Australia is our only choice. So if you're a backpacker, someone from Gen Y or Gen Z, the sort who would normally be turning your attention right now to a budget trip around south-east Asia or a backpacking jaunt to Europe, the question is, what do you do?

How do you capture that overseas travel experience in Australia? How do you have fun and make friends and explore somewhere interesting on a reasonable budget?

The answer, according to Paul McGrath, the chief executive of hostel chain YHA, is to use your own transport, to stay in budget accommodation, and to head to Queensland. It will also help, he says, if you can work as you travel.

"If you can work from home, as so many people have started to do, then you can work from anywhere," McGrath says. "And we're helping people realise that. On our website we have a 'Work From Anywhere' page, linked to the YHA properties that make it easy for people to work from places with strong Wi-Fi, desks, private areas, those type of things."

For those who can't make the digital nomad thing work, meanwhile, there is another option: a new Australian government grant of up to $6000 for those willing to do agricultural work such as fruit-picking.

"We're already seeing people going up to Queensland, doing some 'ag' work somewhere, then moving on to the next place and doing a bit more work there," says McGrath. "That really is that backpacker experience."

As for popular destinations in which to meet other travellers and tap into some south-east Asian "fun in the sun" vibes, McGrath recommends heading north.


"Don't go anywhere near Byron Bay," he laughs. "It's getting smashed at the moment. We're running at 100 per cent occupancy. And that won't let up. But Cairns is coming back quite strongly now, Airlie Beach is also going well, and Mission Beach is getting good numbers."

And the price thing? "I would say, getting a bed for $24 a night is not bad," McGrath says. "Obviously, this is not Thailand, you're not going to get a bed for $5 or $6 a night. But in Australia for $24 you'll get somewhere that's safe, really comfortable, with that social, home living environment. That's not too bad."

Of course, the other way young travellers have traditionally spent their holidays overseas is on a tour, often with a company such as Contiki. And that's still an option in Australia this summer. In fact, it's a very popular option.

"We just sold out of all of our Australian trips, so we're having to double our dates," says Katrina Barry, Contiki's chief executive. "People are really keen to get out there and see Australia, and see it with other people, because they're bloody sick of hanging out with mum and dad, or seeing their mates on Zoom wine nights. Travel together and connecting with others is having a real resurgence."

Contiki had to completely redesign its Australian tours for this summer, taking trips once meant to appeal to foreign travellers and skewing them towards a domestic audience. That has meant including experiences that Australian travellers have probably never had before in their home country – touring a wildlife hospital in Noosa, or visiting bushfire-affected areas of Kangaroo Island – as well as tapping into a desire from young people to engage with the local community.

"This summer we're heading to Magnetic Island – it's the first time we've been there in 20 years," Barry says. "But our research told us, Aussies might have been to the reef, they've been to Byron Bay, so we have to show them something different.

"No one had been to Magnetic Island, so we're going there, we're engaging with a local koala rescue program, and they'll hear about everything they do there, and we'll donate money from the tour to the local koala sanctuary."

And then, of course, there's the cost issue, though Barry says Contiki's Australian tours are reasonably similar in cost to its European trips, only without the need for an international airfare.

"Travelling around Australia is not cheap," she admits. "Contiki has quite a range in Europe, you can go anywhere from $110 a day to $300 a day there. Where we've tried to pitch our Australian product is around $200 a day. So that includes all your transport, all your accommodation, a big chunk of your meals, your Contiki trip manager, and then most of your experiences."

And, of course, 20 new friends to share it with.


See also: Backpackers love Australia, why don't young Aussies?

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