The first week of our stay in Cairns, Australia was not spent chasing waterfalls, dodging kangaroos, nor exploring the Great Barrier Reef. Rather, we were applying for a tax file number and searching for a car while doing a help exchange with a lovely couple and their pet rats.
One thing I miss dearly about Asia, especially Korea and Japan, is the ease of getting around via public transportation. The extensive train and bus systems make it more of a hassle to own a car. It is the opposite down under in the massive island that is Australia. There’s more than enough space to go around for everybody, so distances are vast and cars are a necessity to get around comfortably.
It is, however, possible to travel in Australia without a car. There are bus and train systems in addition to catching rides with other backpackers. Handfuls of active Facebook groups exist where backpackers post ride offers to those heading in the same direction. This is especially handy for solo travelers, but not easily doable for a couple. Some travelers opt to just rent a car when needed. For us, however, we wanted the freedom and convenience of owning a car that can also serve as a home.
Fortunately, it is easy and affordable to get a car in the Oz. Young people from around the world end up buying a car to do a cross-country road trip and sell it to another traveler after a few months. Buying a car can be overwhelming enough; getting one in a foreign country can be even more confusing.
The following is a basic guide on buying a car in Australia – specifically the state of Queensland (as registration and laws differ) – as a backpacker. This advice is not comprehensive as it is coming from somebody who knows little about car mechanics, but perhaps it will be useful and easy to digest for someone who is in a similar situation. So far, we have had no issues with our beloved car and we’re totally content with the purchase.
Types of Cars
- Sedan: Good for a couple who prefers to sleep in a tent. Small, easy to manage, more fuel efficient. Do not recommend for travelers who want to do an extensive road trip.
- Station Wagon: Lots of room so a couple can install a bed and sleep in the back at free campsites. Relatively cheap. The most common vehicle for backpackers and perhaps the best blend of sleeping space and fuel efficiency.
- 4WD: 2WD is fine for getting most places in Australia, but would not do well in certain terrains in Western Australia and Cape York, for example. Opt for a 4WD if you’re looking to drive in rugged terrain and areas prone to flooding.
- Campervan: Lots of room to sleep comfortably in addition to being able to put in a little kitchen. Can hold a few people. More comfortable to live out of, but more expensive to buy and maintain. Less fuel efficient.
Where to Look
First, you should decide if you want to buy a car from a used car dealership or privately. There are pros and cons for each method.
- Used car dealership: This method is a safer way to ensure the car is in roadworthy condition. The car must legally have an official roadworthy certificate in order to sell. This method will end up costing you more and it can be difficult to know who to trust. We took a look at a few used car dealerships in Cairns. We do not recommend Spiro’s, as the employee clearly had no knowledge of any of the cars he was selling. There are huge car lots in bigger cities selling specifically to backpackers, like the Sydney Kings Cross Car Market, but only such things exist in bigger cities. Some used car markets have a buy-back guarantee, which may be appealing to those wanting to leave shortly after their roadtrip, but it may only be for 30-40% of your purchase price.
- Facebook Groups: There are always vehicles for sale on the Facebook groups for backpackers. Check out Australia Backpackers and Backpacker Cars in Australia. Be cautious, though, as many backpacker cars may have taken a beating from life on the road with fleeting travelers. But there are perfectly good cars on the market also, only because the owners need to leave the country soon. Use your judgement.
- Hostel noticeboards: Walk around backpacker districts, such as the Cairns CBD (central business district), and take a look at some of the noticeboards for car sales. Gilligan’s is a popular spot. The noticeboard is in the laundry room.
- Gumtree: Locals also use this website, so it is possible to buy a car that has only been used around the area rather than cross-country. Most locals recommended that we search on Gumtree for the best deal. It can be hit or miss, so be alert of possible lemons.
- Police Auctions: We did not find one in such a small town, but they happen more often in bigger cities. It isn’t uncommon for backpackers to abandon their cars at the airport when they didn’t leave enough time to sell it. Buying one at an auction is risky because you are judging the car from appearances only, but you may be lucky and get a good deal.
What to look out for
We only considered vehicles that have a recent roadworthy certificate. It is technically illegal to sell a car without this certificate, but it happens anyway. If you buy one without the certificate, you will have to get it yourself to get it registered (at least in QLD). In the end, you can end up paying hundreds of dollars in repairs if the car does not pass. Some states do not require a roadworthy certificate, such as Western Australia. It is still risky if you do not know much about cars, though. Wouldn’t want to buy a car and have it break down within a month!
Other pluses: Several months left on the rego (registration), mileage under 300K, comes with camping equipment.
Checking the Car
Adam and I are lacking in the mechanics department, so we were at a loss for what to look out for in a decent car. We relied on the fact that the car recently had a thorough inspection and the roadworthy certificate. We did download a checklist on our phones to refer to when inspecting cars. You can find them here.
Outstanding Debt on the Car
It is possible that the car has a loan out on it that the previous owners did not pay off, so you do not want to be stuck in that situation! To have peace of mind, you can find out (with a small fee) at the Personal Property Securities Register website. However, we did not do this.
Each state differs in their registration (rego, as per Aussie lingo) process. The following is what we did in Queensland but check the site for the process in your state:
New South Wales: Roads and Maritime Services (RTA)
Queensland: Department of Transport and Main Roads
Northern Territory: Motor Vehicle Registry
Western Australia: Driver and Vehicle Services
South Australia: Transport Vehicle Registration
Australia Capital Territory: Rego.act
Tasmania: Transport Tasmania
For Queensland, You need proof of identification, paperwork filled out by both parties, a roadworthy certificate, and about $100 AUD to transfer it into your name. You also need proof of address such as a utility bill with your name on it. Obviously, backpackers would not have this document. Our hosts were kind enough to sign off on us being able to use their address with a document provided by the department. Many backpackers opt to use the hostel’s address.
The registration includes compulsory third party insurance (CTP), which covers the other people should you be at fault in an accident, but it does not cover damage done to the vehicles. As this can get costly if you bump into a Rolls Royce, it is strongly recommended to get insurance to cover the other car. We are using Suncorp, which is the most popular insurance company to go with. Luckily, we didn’t have to use it, so I cannot attest to the customer service and ease of filing a claim.
Our 2002 Holden Commodore Executive
After many e-mails, walking in the Australian sun to used car dealerships, and Internet searches, we found the perfect vehicle for us on Gumtree.
Within minutes of us contacting the seller, we arranged to meet up at the Cairns Esplanade. Fifteen minutes later, the French Canadian couple pulled up. I instinctively had a good feeling about them and the car. We did a check, had some nice conversations, and took it for a test drive. After negotiating a little, we easily settled on a fair price. The couple also recently had it registered and got some repairs for the car to be certified as roadworthy. That paperwork was especially important for us, so we appreciated their conscientiousness.
They also put in the work to build a bed in the back with storage under the wooden planks. It also came with a camping stove, cooking equipment, spices, and lots of other goodies needed for a proper road trip. We were thankful for their flexibility and willingness to go out of their way to help us. They gave us sound advice about the car and travel advice down the East coast. It sounds like they had a wonderful time in Oz, which excited us about our own adventure!
The station wagon is wider and longer than anything I’ve ever driven. The Holden Commodore, specifically, is known as a reliable and safe car, a classic in Australia, if you will. If an issue should arise, it’s apparently rather easy to fix.
We’ve had the car for about a month. So far, it has been a pleasure to serve as our wheels and shelter. For three weeks, we drove between help exchanges before heading 1,400km south. We camped exclusively at free campsites designated to give tired drivers a place to rest. It’s such a luxury to be able to stop to take walks through the rainforest that lead to waterfalls, various lookout points, beaches, parks and gardens for picnics, and so much more. We’ve spotted cassowaries, platypus, snakes, funky birds, and wallabies. I will write another post on tips for driving in Australia on a budget, so stay tuned.
The car doesn’t have a name yet, but Adam insists on continuing its legacy with “Georgia”, as the boyfriend in the previous couple wanted to call it. But his girlfriend disagreed. I disagree too. I’m sure the perfect name will arise soon as we continue to explore Australia together!