OK, let me start at the very beginning. So, thanks to the information on Clark Howard’s website, I managed to purchase our travel tickets to Australia from Atlanta (not Central Florida) for less than half of what I had ever expected to be paying for those tickets. However, that was just the start – we still needed to figure out where to go and for how long! At the very outset, Mrs. Porcupyn washed her hands off the planning aspect – and justifiably so, as she is very busy with her job and the kids’ extra curricular activities. So I did the next best thing and co-opted Baab into the planning process. The pre-planning was a good thing as not only did it help us put together a decent itinerary, but it also helped us greatly in understanding the lay of the land.
From the get go, we set our sights on Sydney and Melbourne as our two bases as a trip to Perth was out of the question. I priced out car rentals and reserved a car for the week for nearly A$500!! As I could not even place any of the Australian cities on the map at this point, I delved deep into the recess of my mind for my high school geography knowledge of the continent. I recalled that the tallest mountain in the continent was not too high. So, the plan was to hit Mount Kosciuszko enroute to Melbourne then drive back. But one email to Sydney based friend convinced us that it would be a bad idea because a) the mountain would be snowbound which would make driving hazardous for us and b) half of Australia (OK, I am exaggerating here) would be there with their snow gear!
Next, we looked towards Darwin with its beautiful waterfalls, tropical forests and weather, and lush scenery. However, after a review of the amount of time needed and the travel costs, we abandoned that plan. Our next choice of destinations was Uluru (Ayer’s Rock), so much so that I even reserved accommodation and almost purchased the flight tickets; however, upon further review of the amount of time it would take out of our trip just to get a photo or two with a rock in our background (granted, that is one silly way of looking at it as the area really does have some singularly unique scenery), we had to cancel that plan as well.
Then, we turned our attention to Brisbane, with the nice river that flows through the city flanked by parks with wildlife and a petting zoo area with Kangaroos as well as Koalas. Also, by this time, DS had researched about the NSW Discovery Pass on trains, which was a nice perk for both of us, as we are diehard trainfans. The pass allows for unlimited travel between the cities of Melbourne and Brisbane, and also included the trip up to Katoomba for the Blue Mountains. Even if we purchased the 14-day pass and used it for the seven (full) days we were there, we would be able to recoup its cost. However, in the end, looking at the amount of time we would spend in the train, we decided it would not be worth it to subject Mrs. Porcupyn and Katya to that torturous experience!
Now that even Brisbane was dropped, we looked for other touristy things that smacked of Australia! Lo and behold, the Great Barrier Reef beckoned. Cairns it was, though hindsight being 20/20, a better choice probably would have been somewhere closer to Brisbane, say the Whitsundays area. On the other hand, the second night we were in the Cairns area was one of the best of the entire trip. So, in the final analysis, it did turn out well.
So, to summarize, after deciding to add Cairns to our two main base cities of Sydney and Melbourne, I went about purchasing transportation and accommodation. Here is what I got for transportation:
– Atlanta to Sydney round trip (United)
– Sydney to Cairns one way (JetStar)
– Compass Cruise to visit the Reef
– Cairns to Melbourne one way (JetStar)
– Melbourne to Sydney one way (XPT express passenger train)
Besides these, I reserved cars at Cairns for two days and Melbourne for two days plus three hours (why the “plus three hours”? Hold on to your horses, this is just a sneak preview). For the two JetStar flights, I pre-purchased 20 kg of checked-in baggage per adult as well as window seats for each kid right behind each other. As JetStar had a stated policy (don’t know how well they follow it – details will follow later) that they would seat an adult next to a kid when they traveled together, my rationale was that at least we would all be in two consecutive rows, and we would still get to look out through the window. For the outbound (to Cairns) flight, I had purchased two window seats on the right side and for the flight in the other direction (to Melbourne), I had purchased two window seats on the left – with the hope that we would be able to see the reefs from the air.
And for accommodation:
– Airbnb in Cairns area (Nights One and Two)
– Airbnb in Melbourne area (Night Three)
– Urban Central Accommodation (Night Five)
– Hotel Intercontinental Double Bay, thanks Chase IHG card (Night Eight)
To fill in the gaps, we were unsure where we would be halting on the fourth night, so we kept our options open. The sixth night we would be spending on the train from Melbourne to Sydney, and the seventh night, our Sydney friend had offered to host us.
In addition to all this, I forgot to add, we got our Australian visas (I am referring to the version for US citizens) through their online site. Apparently, there are ways around it (i.e., sites that apparently can get you your visa for less than the officially approved site – this is because the visa itself is free but the agency charges for their legwork), but per online advice, better be safe than sorry and so, we paid up the A$20 per person.