The great thing about traveling in Australia is the only thing you need to book before you arrive is your first accommodation and any internal flights you know you are going to take. Everything else, don’t worry about it until you arrive. You’ll get the best prices on location. You can book it all separately through the tour operators directly or through your accommodation, which sometimes has good deals, but the best deals are through the chain travel shops with store fronts in all the major backpacker towns. And they want your business! All have different deals and the more you buy with one store up front, the more you save in buying everything separately. The way it works in this is you are paying for all your trips up front, but you can call and cash in your voucher usually anytime within 365 days of purchase. I booked all my tours and experiences all different ways and when I go into detail later about the trip, I’ll say how I booked it and if I think or know that I got the best deal and if not, what I would have done differently. But this post is just a general travel store experience in Australia.
Everyone is usually loyal to whatever chain you start with as you’ll continue to get good deals and discounts from them as you travel. The two big ones are Peter Pan’s and Backpackers World and those are the ones that I had the most contact with on my travels. I am just going to say up front that I ended up using Backpackers World as they seemed to have more variety and didn’t pressure me into buying anything ever, which I always appreciate. Both stores have arrangements with different local operators, so you may be only able to buy something through one of the stores and not the other. Of course, you can always just book everything on your own, but these stores package a lot together to get you a good deal as well as throw in extras like free internet! Backpackers World also works in conjunction with Global Gossip, which was my favorite internet chain and I practically collected the free time they would hand out. My card was actually so old, that when I got to Australia 16 months after I got my card no one knew where the pin number was! Anyway, I used Peter Pan for their free internet and always perused their brochures and talked to some of their agents, but I just never felt comfortable in the stores. I know I would always have a good conversation with the agents at Backpackers World, even if I didn’t buy anything that day. When I was booking my last bit of travel, which was nearly 2 weeks of using the same operator (not something I like to do in case they suck) but when the agent at Backpackers World was booking it for me, she even said, this isn’t an operator that they use a lot as they try to sell travelers on this other operator that is slightly more expensive (I actually wanted to travel part of the way on this other company, but they couldn’t compete, price-wise with the company I ended up using). When I joined the tour, I actually had a great time but in chatting with other travelers, they actually all seemed to book their travel with Peter Pan’s.
And just as an example on how Peter Pan’s just wants to make the sale, whether it’s something you are looking for or not, this tour included about half the nights sleeping outside (which I was happy to do) but one of the other girls did not want to sleep outside and her agent told her that there would be an option to sleep inside. In thinking back about all my research and chatting with the agents, I think this girl might have had a better time on the slightly more expensive tour, but since Peter Pan’s didn’t have a “deal” with them, to someone just walking into PP, they wouldn’t know their options of other tours, they just want to make the sale. Peter Pan’s was definitely cheaper as a whole, but also had more of the backpacker party-ness that goes along with it.
I have booked air tickets every which way. For my trip to New Zealand, I went to STA Travel, thinking I would get a good price and flexibility. I never change tickets once I buy, but I didn’t know when I was going to return, so I thought I would try STA. I bought my ticket in September 2006 for outgoing in February 2007.They just booked me on the latest return date they could at the time, which was August 2007. I was told I could change my ticket as many times as I wanted for a $25 fee per change through the website. I asked all the questions I could think of at the moment and bought my ticket. The price was just slightly higher then rack rate online, but since I wanted the flexibility on the return, I didn’t mind the extra cost. Out going was fine. Once I got settled in Auckland with a fantastic job, I moved my return date to January 2008. In October 2007, I got another job, which was now going to take me until June 2008, so I emailed to rebook my ticket for September 2008. I got an email back with dates and times and I said it was okay to cancel my old ticket and rebook the new one and that I should be getting a confirmation email back within 48 hours. When I hadn’t gotten anything back within 36 hours, I called STA (a 1800, US number I might add) after being on hold for 30 minutes (no, not a typo!) they said that I couldn’t rebook the ticket, because it was more then 365 days after my outgoing ticket. I was so mad! If I had known that upfront, I would have not bought the ticket. I closely read all my T&C’s provided by STA and nowhere does it say that the return portion has to be used within 365 days. They said it was Qantas’s rules, but shouldn’t STA have disclosed it before purchase?
I was so fed up that in a fit of rage, I bought a one-way from AKL back to the US in September 2008. In another catch-22 situation, this had to be a hard ticket (what the hell is that anyway?) and they don’t mail to addresses overseas. ARE YOU KIDDING ME?! Luckily, I was dealing with this in October 2007 and my parents were coming to visit in December, so I had them mail the ticket to them and they just brought it to me.
In a funny turn of events a few months later when I was researching Australian visas and realized they opened up the WHV to Americans for 12 months, I ended up canceling the ticket anyway. I didn’t return the ticket to the US until I had entered Australia on my WHV, just to have proof of return to the US (even if it was from AKL) and as usual, no one at immigration cared. I mailed the ticket back to Arizona as soon as I entered Australia and got a refund minus $100, so for nearly a year I didn’t have a ticket back to the US.
Moral of the story? Ask how late you can use your return portion!
People bag on this place a lot. It’s big, it’s loud, it’s crowded. But one thing is for sure, is everyone knows where it is! When I got off the plane in Auckland after the 12 hour ride, after going through immigration, another officer pulled me to the side and just asked me where I was staying. I didn’t know off the top of my head (getting into that “no worries” spirit very quickly!) but I knew it was something like “Auckland Backpackers” and the officer filled in, “ACB?” and that sounded right, so I said yeah and he asked how many nights and I said 4 and that seemed like a good answer and he let me go. Easy peasy! Took the AirBus into town and the driver yelled out all the hostels at each stop, so no need to worry about maps and getting off at the right stop. I was pointed in the right direction and when I arrived told I couldn’t check in until 1pm. I wanted to shower sooo bad, but still had about 6 hours to kill. Plus, since I never bring shampoo and soap with me when I travel, I had to find a pharmacy to buy that stuff anyway, so it worked out. I finally checked in and scored my own twin room with a mini fridge and a fantastic view of the corner of Victoria and Queen Streets.
The front desk was very helpful in showing me how to use the phone cards as I wouldn’t be getting my sim card until Monday and I called my parents and we realized that the time different was only 3 hours (but I was a day ahead)! The lounge is very large and was just a great place to get my barrings and listen and eavesdrop on all the conversations around me. There are two large tv rooms, one playing sports and the other has Sky Movies on 24/7, so there is no arguing about what to watch. Around 10pm, someone from the front desk will come in and check that everyone there is actually staying at the hostel, as to weed out the riffraff. There were no problems when I was there. They also have a super helpful travel desk. I ended up living in AKL and became friends with one of the girls who worked there and she told me that their main selling item was the backpacker buses and getting kids out of town, which I thought was kind of interesting, so definitely take what they say and try to sell with a grain of salt.
Since I stayed there, they have been bought out by Base, which is a chain of hostels in NZ and Australia and I think most of the complaints are because of that. Yes, it’s a large impersonal hostel, but as a first stop after a marathon plane ride, it’s nice to have a lot of information and a central location at your finger tips. I am glad I stayed there at first, but I wouldn’t again, mainly because I know too many people in town.