Is Australia a Value Destination?

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Kate at Walpa Gorge

It’s one of the most expensive countries in the world. Is Australia worth the cost?

Over my three weeks Down Under, I choked at prices several times. The first time was at a little general store and cafe near Litchfield National Park in the Northern Territory when I wanted to buy a cup of coffee. Coffee was served in real mugs — no takeaway allowed — and a tiny mugful cost $4.90 AUD ($4.60 USD).

That was my first indication that Australia was even more expensive that I thought it would be — one of the most expensive places I’ve ever been. Yes: I found Australia to be more expensive than Japan, Stockholm, Iceland, London, Paris, New York, and everywhere else I’ve been except Switzerland.

While Australia has always been on the pricey side, in recent years, the currency value has climbed. In 2009, one Australian dollar was equal to $0.65 USD. For a while, it averaged around $0.75 USD. Today, one Australian dollar is equal to $0.92 USD. This is significantly lower than it was earlier this year.

To put this further in perspective, minimum wage in Australia is currently $16 AUD ($15 USD) for those over age 20. Even though the Australian dollar is close to equal to the US dollar, in contrast, the US federal minimum wage is $7.25 USD.

You’ve got a country that’s expensive to begin with, a soaring currency making things even more expensive for international visitors, and it’s expensive to fly there. A trip to Australia will cost you a lot of money.

Sydney Opera House in Black and White

My Personal Costs in Australia

Once arriving in Australia, you need to get into a different financial mindset. If you try to keep on the same budget that you’re used to in North America or Western Europe, you’ll be traveling at a much lower level than you’re used to (like hostel dorms rather than private rooms) out of necessity.

I was initially planning on visiting only Sydney and Melbourne, and possibly heading up the coast to see friends. I knew Australia would be pricey, and being on a tight budget for this year of travel, that was all I could afford. Staying with friends, which I did for a week in Melbourne and one night outside Sydney, saved me about $1000 USD overall and played a pivotal role in making Australia affordable for me.

The other pivotal role was that of Northern Territory Tourism, whose representatives I met in May. When they heard about my trip, they offered to host me in the NT on their dime in exchange for coverage and content, which allowed me to extend my trip to three full weeks.

Had I been planning a singular trip to Australia, I would have been able to save more money and travel to more places — but it would have to be a budget trip. (My version of budget travel means cheap private rooms with good wifi and paying more for better or shorter transport, while I keep most other expenses down and splurge on occasion.)

Here are some examples of what the costs were in September and October 2013:

Lodging: My Airbnb rental in Bronte, Sydney, cost $56 USD per night and was a room in the owner’s house. I stayed with friends in Melbourne, but when researching private rooms in hotels and hostels, I couldn’t find anything under $140 AUD ($128 USD) per night (a whopping $980 AUD ($898 USD) for a week!). The cheapest private doubles in Darwin started at around $75 AUD ($69 USD). The cheapest private doubles at Ayers Rock Resort by Uluru, in the Outback Pioneer, cost $198 AUD ($181 USD).

Food: In Sydney and Melbourne, I typically paid $15-20 AUD ($14-18 USD) for breakfast. My cheapest restaurant meal was a bowl of pho in a no-frills Vietnamese restaurant in Northcote, Melbourne, for $9 AUD ($8 USD). Dinner entrees in cheap-to-midrange restaurants usually ran $15-25 AUD ($14-23 USD). Grocery stores were a bit more expensive than the US. Coffee was cheap, though — often $3 AUD ($3 USD) for a fantastic flat white.

Internet: Australia has the worst internet of any country I’ve ever visited, including Cambodia, Laos, and South Africa. It’s slow, expensive, and often tough to find. Internet at my lodging in Darwin ran me $4 AUD ($4 USD) for 24 hours and barely worked. Some cafes and McDonald’s have free wifi, but the quality is often terrible, especially in rural areas.

Phone: I was able to get a Telstra mobile plan with texting, calling, and 400 mb data for $30 AUD ($27 USD). I later paid $50 AUD ($46 USD) to increase the data to 2 GB. I wouldn’t have been able to provide a fraction of the social media coverage that I did without this plan. Coverage was great in Sydney, Melbourne, and Darwin; it worked in the main town of Kakadu and Ayers Rock Resort but not in the national parks.

Activities: This is where you’ll pay the most money. The Sydney Harbour BridgeClimb currently costs $198-308 AUD ($181-282 USD); the Uluru Cycles motorcycle ride costs $170 AUD ($156 USD); the Uluru Camels ride costs $100 AUD ($92 USD), not including the $185 AUD ($170 USD) Sounds of Silence dinner; the three-day camping tour in Kakadu starts at $705 USD.

Kakadu National Park

Why Australia Is Worth It

There are two things I want you to keep in mind: the first is that value is a personal thing and varies from traveler to traveler. While I found Australia to be pretty good value for me, it would be much less value for a shoestringer who doesn’t love the great outdoors.

Secondly, “best value” is not a euphemism for “cheapest.” If that were the case, Cambodia would be my top value destination, and I think we all know that’s not going to happen. Value is determined by what you get for the price, and it’s often intangible.

I found Australia to be a wonderful country that I enjoyed immensely, and I found it to have high value. The reasons:

Natural beauty. From the bright red sands of the Red Centre to the silky-smooth beaches of Sydney and the craggy, Jurassic Park-esque landscape of the Top End, Australia will bring you to its knees. I know I only saw a tiny piece of Australia, but places like Whitehaven Beach in Queensland, the Twelve Apostles in Victoria, and Wineglass Bay in Tasmania look heart-stoppingly beautiful.

Infrastructure. Australia is built for tourism, and no matter what kind of trip you want to have, you’ll be able to execute it brilliantly. The language is English and there are a variety of ways to travel, from simple camping to five-star resorts (or “six stars” if you stay where Oprah stayed at Uluru). With the exception of the awful internet, Australia has everything you could want as a tourist. I also felt very safe in Australia.

Diversity. On my trip, I got to see the nearly untouched, prehistoric-looking gorges of Kakadu National Park, then sip flat whites in hip Melbourne neighborhoods a week later. Australia is similar to the United States in that it has so much natural and geographic diversity within its borders. That was my favorite part — how a single country could offer both such wild national parks in addition to cities that regularly get ranked among the world’s best places to live.

People. While Australia was once colonized by convicts, today you can’t deny that Australians are some of the most gregarious, talkative, fun, spirited, and party-loving people you’ll ever meet. Come to Australia and you’ll leave with many new friends.

Uniqueness. While Sydney to me was a mostly nondescript city with gorgeous beaches, and Melbourne was a nicer, cleaner, less tragic, much more expensive version of Berlin, the Northern Territory was the truly unique part of Australia, home to crocs lurking in the rivers, the world’s oldest rock art, an enormous red rock commanding the desert. Australia’s natural environment is what sets it apart from the rest of the world, which is why I recommend you get out of the cities. Plus, where else will you see kangaroos and koalas in the wild?

Dream factor. Australia is a dream destination for many people, often a dream since childhood. I think there’s a LOT of value in standing in front of the Sydney Opera House, or seeing your first koala in the wild, as you grin to yourself, thinking, “I’m finally here!”

Melbourne Knitting Mafia

How to Save Money in Australia

Get into points and miles. Airfare to Australia is obviously quite expensive for most people. One way you can subsidize the cost is getting into points and miles. My recommendation? Read The Points Guy. It’s the single most comprehensive source on the web (not to mention the fastest in reporting new deals), and it’s all free.

I used my British Airways Avios, which are best used for flying short-haul, to fly from Sydney to Melbourne on Qantas for just 4,500 Avios and $13 USD. Much better than $60-90 AUD ($55-82 USD) for a 12-hour bus ride or $150+ USD for a flight.

Rent apartments. If having a private (re: non-dorm) room is a priority for you, I recommend staying in Airbnb rentals or other apartments. The prices are much lower than hotels and rentals often include decent internet and laundry for free, which will cut down your costs further.

Get a mobile phone plan and use it to tether on your computer. Unless you’re doing a lot of heavy uploading, which I do as a blogger, this will be your best option for internet. I found my aforementioned Telstra phone plan to have good coverage for a decent price.

Come live here for awhile! The ultimate option. If you’re eligible for the working holiday visa, come to Australia, spend a few months earning a high Australian salary, and use that to finance your travels around Australia.

Melbourne Street Art

Should You Go to Australia?

Of COURSE you should! Australia is a dream destination for so many people, and you should absolutely go after your dream!

But I will say this — if you’re planning a long-term budget trip around the world, I wouldn’t recommend spending extended time in Australia.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go to Australia. Just don’t go for months on end. The money you’d spend on a single month of backpacking Australia could pay for three or four months of backpacking Southeast Asia. If visiting Australia is a priority for you on your long-term trip, and you don’t have buckets of cash, I recommend you keep your visit on the shorter side but filled with the places you’ve dreamed of visiting. If you’ve got the cash, though, then by all means, stay as long as you can!

Australia, in my opinion, is best done as a special trip when you have more money to spend. This doesn’t mean you have to splash out in luxury — quite the opposite. If you save up for awhile, you can stay in a nice apartment rental in a great location instead of staying in a dorm on the outskirts of town because you have no other choice. You can eat in restaurants instead of hitting up the grocery store for every meal. You can do activities like the Sydney BridgeClimb instead of passing them up for cheaper fare.

You can do Australia on a shoestring if you’d like to. I know people who have done it and who have enjoyed it. To me, though, it’s so much better if you have a bit more money to spend.

Have you been to Australia? Do you think it’s worth it?

Many thanks to Northern Territory Tourism for their generous support of the SOTM Tour and for hosting us in the Northern Territory. Many thanks also to the Sydney BridgeClimb for offering me a complimentary climb. Everything else in Australia was at our own expense. All opinions, as always, are my own.

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109 thoughts on “Is Australia a Value Destination?”

  1. Great post! So many things to consider when visiting Australia. It is definitely on our list of must sees but I’m not sure when we will be able to go. Thanks so much for the great information, it really was helpful!

  2. Hi Kate! Haven’t checked out your blog lately but thought I would stop by you are right Australia is hideously expensive and I am Australian. I think nearly every other country I have visited is cheaper. The best thing for peeps on a budget to do is get a working holiday visa and work here to stay here longer. Most hospitality jobs pay really well if you are willing to do weekends and get the penalty rates. If your are disciplined like one of your readers above mentioned you can save some cash and use it to extend your other travels! I’m glad you enjoyed your short time here, I’m more of a sydney person myself but to be honest she really is a sinful mistress and I often get lead astray by her hehe might cya somewhere in the world

    1. Heya Earl! 🙂 Thanks for sharing. I’ve met some people who were SO disciplined about saving in Australia — one guy would work a year, then head out to Asia for two years, then come back and earn. Not a bad life. Hope to see you around somewhere!

  3. LOVED Sydney and Cairns where I’ve been twice, but for the money I’d much rather spend a month in Thailand than a week in Sydney. I wouldn’t call it a “value” destination, rather I’d call it a valuable destination in the sense that you should see it and enjoy it as a citizen of the world despite the fact that it’s just as pricey to visit as the western Europe or the USA.

  4. It’s very true that Australia is an expensive country to visit compared to our nearest neighbours especially, however there are ways to save money. I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from coming to Australia, but I do think if you come from the northern hemisphere you should come for at least six weeks, or possibly as a working holiday. It’s a country that takes its time to reveal itself to you, not only as it is so large, but I truly think that it’s the Aussie way of life and people that make the country special. I wouldn’t spend 15-20 dollars on a breakfast in Sydney and there are so many ways to not do that, I would recommend urbanspoon.com.au as a great research tool for affordable eats. I agree that a holiday rental or traveling with friends and getting a holiday house or unit can really reduce costs, air bnb likewise is great. When travelling NZ, which is expensive even by Australian standards we packed our lunch and only bought dinner and some breakfasts and that saved heaps, invest in a little portable esky or cold pack and there’s your lunch! I also want to say that you need to pick where you go, the major cities of Melbourne and Sydney can be exy, but if you travel outside these areas it can be much cheaper, also their are loads of options for camping or caravanning and you can hire this equipment or ‘ glamp’ it. I wouldn’t recommend Melbourne for anyone who has grown up in or spent much time in Europe, but Sydney is amazing, to describe it as nondescript makes me think perhaps you didn’t see the best parts of it. Northern NSW, the Gold Coast, the barrier reef and north Qld are amazing as is the Top End.

  5. As a local Aussie my favourite money saving tips for travelling here are:
    Couchsurfing, there is a really good network here particularly in Melbourne
    In terms of food if you want to eat out particularly in Melbourne hit the Asian cuisine, you can get sushi for under $8 (makes a great lunch), dumplings for under $10 and stuff like curry for about $15.
    Finally in terms of flights there are two low cost airlines: Jetstar and Tiger. Tiger is usually cheaper but Jetstar have a price match guarantee where they will price match any cheaper flight leaving within the same hour as their flight and beat it by 10%. This is great not just because you save money but also because Jetstar is usually nicer. Internationally if you are heading from or to Asia Jetstar and Airasia do super cheap deals and sometimes when I head to Europe I’ve taken a cheap flight to KL and gone on from there and saved myself $300.

  6. High prices:/
    I think I’d still find it doable if it wasn’t for the airfare. Flying to Australia from Belgium is just crazy expensive.
    I’m waiting to go until my neighbors (the man is Australian) move back there in a year or two:D

  7. I am from Europe, so I also think that Australia is very expensive. The only way to make it affordable is to do work & travel. But it’s no longer that easy to find an enjoyable job, especially if you are not a native speaker.

    I disagree that Australia is diverse. I would move back to Brisbane any time, but after a while I would get quite bored. After all, Australia has only about 4 – 5 big(ger) cities and there is not much around (except for New Zealand and Fidschi). Sure, it has different landscapes, but you have to keep in mind that it is one giant country. I found it rather monotonous because the different landscapes are each huge. If you are looking for diversity on a small area, you should go to New Zealand for the landscapes and to Europe for the culture.

    In spite of that, I consider the Great Barrier Reef and Uluru must-see destinations, which had been on my wishlist for a long time. They are definately worth to spend money on. 🙂

  8. WORD OF ADVICE <3: With all due respect, this is not how most backpackers do Australia. Obviously if you only visit the most expensive cities and refuse to stay in anything but a double room and only eat in restaurants it is going to be expensive. It's not Europe or Southeast Asia. It's Australia–and when you do it the RIGHT way, it is one of the most backpacker-friendly places in the world. Aussie hostels are VERY different from Asian and European hostels–they are SUPER safe, even the dorms–for around $25 a night. I left most of my stuff in my hostel dorm room–even documents and some money!–while I was out most of the time and nothing was ever stolen (I've since learned that had I done that in Paris I'd be screwed lol). Australian culture is very chill and very open and trusting–they expect that if you insist on a private room, then you are either over 30 or are married. That's why double rooms are so expensive. Let me tell you–I met plenty of couples (even engaged couples) staying in dorms. Also, you don't go to Australia for the food. Once again, this isn't Europe. Food in Australia is not the best in the world, unless you are eating tropical fruit up north, so eating in restaurants is really not necessary. And on that same 'this isn't Europe" note–don't get coffee. It's a very slow-paced, laid-back culture so caffeine is really not necessary. Yes, the internet sucks and I can understand why that would be extremely bothersome in your line of work–but I will say in those very hostels I stayed in dorms in, a few had excellent internet–but you had to pay for it per hour.

    I spent 2 months there (never having an Australian job) on $6000, had a life-changing time, and if I wasn't a scuba diver I probably could have spent even less.

    The USUAL way to backpack Australia is to start at the top of the East Coast and work your way downward, going from Port Douglas to Cairns (and during this of course seeing the Great Barrier Reef), to Mission Beach, to Magnetic Island (off Townsville), to Airlie Beach (which the Whitsundays are off of), to the Sunshine Coast (Australia Zoo!!), to Fraser Island (off Brisbane), to the Gold Coast, to Byron Bay, to Sydney, to Melbourne, traveling by greyhound bus most of the way (except Fraser-Gold Coast-Byron, which have shuttles between them for $25). All except the last two are reasonably cheap, very fun, and very backpacker-y cities (with delicious climates as well). Most budget travelers never go to the red centre or the top end because it can be very expensive and those things are more for wealthy travelers. I did the Rock Tour, but that's because I chose to skip Melbourne (as I hear it's just like Boston but cleaner–which I can obviously get back home).

    I will say, though, I can understand someone with a fear of fish not immediately going gaga for such an ocean-based backpacking trail :p

    I hope you give it another chance someday when you understand what's really out there <3

    1. Jocy, thanks for your comment, and I appreciate you sharing your point of view. I do disagree with quite a bit of what you have to say, though.

      First of all, there is no such thing as a “right way” and “wrong way” to do Australia. You can only do what is best for you and your particular circumstances. Your way worked for you, and that’s great! That’s what’s important.

      Secondly, this particular post is not about how to do Australia in the cheapest way possible while following the usual tourist trail. If it were, it sounds like you might be someone to talk to.

      As for food, Australia has GREAT food. In fact, I can say without a doubt that Australia has the best breakfasts IN THE WORLD. Beautiful, healthy, creative breakfasts were the norm rather than the exception throughout Australia.

      Regarding coffee, not everybody drinks coffee just for the caffeine buzz. If they did, we’d all just pop pills instead. 🙂 Are you aware that Melbourne has one of the best artisanal coffee scenes in the world, if not THE best scene in the world? People make the pilgrimage to Melbourne just for the coffee! It’s famous. There’s nothing like a genuine Melbourne flat white. As for me and Mario, we love stopping for coffee once a day because it gives a chance to slow down and reflect.

      I highly recommend you make it to Melbourne someday — as a Bostonian, I can tell you that Melbourne is nothing like Boston!

      1. You’re totally right–I probably shouldn’t have phrased it as “right way” as everyone has a different one.

        I just wanted to make the point that you can definitely do Australia on a budget and still have a great time–and on the northeast coast (imo the most beautiful place in the world), beers are $4 🙂 The cities I mentioned, save for the last two, are not the “tourist trail” but the “backpacker trail”–in many of these towns, the scene is so young that there’s like one resort and like 20 different hostels (except for maybe Port Douglas). But, the very massive backpacking culture I was talking about is extremely lacking in Americans–I heard the craziest things there: “Americans don’t backpack” “You’re not Canadian?”, etc.

        A lot of the comments on this post seem to say “well I was thinking of going but after reading this I don’t think I will/I don’t have enough money” and that breaks my heart because I think more Americans should visit Australia to see an example of what our society could be–relaxed, free of gun violence, eco-friendly, egalitarian…etc.

        I met a lot of Europeans there (not just those on a work visa) doing a combined trip of Australia and southeast Asia–lots of “I just came from Thailand” and “I just came from Cambodia”–apparently they balance each other off in terms of cost, and they are of course close to each other distance-wise. So…you can in fact do this on a combination trip, and you can do it affordably.

        You liked the breakfasts? They are healthy, that’s true–I was not a fan of the bacon, though. Super-thick! LOL.

        I’ll take your advice on Melbourne 🙂

  9. I’m surprised to find that many (not just you) consider Australia costlier than Europe! My sis has lived in Australia for a while, so when she got a chance to holiday in Europe, she watched every penny. She found Paris and Amsterdam much, much costlier than Sydney. She said, “I want to go back to Australia!”

    1. Well, I’m not sure when your sister went, but it was a lot cheaper in Australia a few years ago. It was when their currency started soaring that things got especially expensive.

  10. Speaking as a Swiss Australian i think Australia is a “nice ” place to live, for the tourist offers terrible value, “wow” sights are to far and few between , while Switzerland offers the best of the best with wide variety and culture in a mint sized package

    Sydney was a major let down for me being a international city attached to a nice, yet over rated harbor , having said this I do like Melbourne particularly so for it’s Victorian architecture .

    It’s interesting you compare Melbourne to Berlin I would have thought the comparison would be a largish English industrial city , funny I can get a idea from You Tube if I could enjoy a city or not with Berlin it’s a big big (?)

    If one loves Melbourne would you expect them to appreciate Berlin ?

    1. Hi Julien,

      I am a German who has lived in Berlin as well as in Melbourne and I think both cities are very different!

      I would compare Melbourne to Frankfurt as they are both fancy business cities with a lot of suited up people. Berlin goes by the theme “poor, but sexy”. Berlin has a lot of energy, people dress in any way they want. There are a lot of (life) artists). It is exciting and a bit anarchic. Melbourne felt very controlled. For example New Years Eve: In Melbourne it’s a family event without alcohol and only offcial fireworks. In Berlin you might get hit by fireworks because every drunken person lights their own.

      Melbourne is safe and glamouros, Berlin is rough and exciting.

      I love Berlin, I did not love Melbourne (except for Victoria Market and the street art).

      1. I think getting out into neighborhoods like Fitzroy and Northcote, even St. Kilda, you get more of a Berlin-esque feeling. All the independent shops, all the art, all the ethnic cuisine. Melbourne is like an expensive Berlin, I found, and I’d never compare it to Frankfurt!

    2. I think it depends on what people like about Melbourne, Julien. If you like Melbourne’s art scene, the interesting independent shops, and the wide variety of ethnic cuisine, I think you’d love Berlin for the same reasons!

  11. Hi Kate, as an Aussie who has just returned from a trip to Europe for the 4th time which included Switzerland (the most expensive) and Berlin (the cheapest) and lived in Australia all my life, I can see some of your points about the expense here – but I would ask you why you expected it to be cheap? Is it because we were settled by convicts but now are civilized?

    And for Australians it is also expensive to fly to the northern hemisphere – the America’s and Europe so I think that is just about distance. Australian’s are perhaps more used to the cost of flights because if we want to see most of the world we either pay the price or miss out. Australian travellers also suffer terribly from the exchange rate to the Euro, so while Berlin is cheap, I still lost about $500 just transferring money – UK and USA traveller’s don’t have that cost to bear. I’ve still not been to the UK because of the exchange rate, expense the quality of accommodation. If you do pay more than you would expect is reasonable for accommodation in Australia, I am confident it will be of a high standard.

    You are also not using the best Australian websites to book hotels and accommodation. You could try wotfi.com.au or lastminute.com.au or YHA for youth hostels who also double and twin rooms. I agree with an earlier post, you can find 3 star accommodation for under $100 – about $80 on Spencer St in Melbourne – if you are truly on a budget. Sydney is expensive but any major tourist city is.

    Unlike many European countries our takeaway food is pricier than buying it from supermarkets but I noticed that in Berlin, the quality and standard of bakery and takeaway food is much higher and cheaper so it is possible to buy more food on the run.

    NT, particularly Alice Springs and Uluru are expensive for Australians also! It just is – because the resorts are owned by the same company and know they can charge whatever they want to because tourists will pay it. I am going there next year and will be staying at a camping group.

    These are the challenges of travelling to different countries – identifying the country or cities best search tools or costs and customs.

  12. I just noticed you travelled with Qantas, fair enough if you had points but for yourself and other travellers thinking of coming to Australia, Qantas our national carrier is one of the most expensive airlines to travel with in the world and I don’t travel on it unless I get a sale fare, which is not a sale in comparison to airlines like EasyJet and Ryan Air.

    I travelled to Europe with Qatar Airways in shoulder season who has connections from most major Europe cities and it was excellent service, food – yes very surprising indeed to enjoy a plane meal and a good price, with dazzling purple and pink neon lights. Likewise a lot of Asian airlines are much better value than Qantas and I think a superior service.

  13. I’ve always felt really lucky due to the fact that I was born and raised in Australia. The fact that our minimum wage is double that of the US means that travel is generally okay. However, even living here and working here, I’ve discovered that travelling around my own country is expensive. A trip from one side to the other is more expensive than travelling to Fiji for a week.

    You are right though, Australia is beautiful 🙂

  14. Hi,
    I’m Australian and live outside of Sydney, and honestly i agree with most of what Kate has said. Yes the prices are expensive but i found it was the same when i went to Japan and South Korea mainly food wise unless you went to the local 7/11 and bough food. I live and call this amazing country home, i have travelled around quiet a bit and i still get surprised on the beautiful landscape that we have.

    I have to say it is worth travelling to Australia and going to the littler towns instead of the main cities. The outer areas like the blue mountains in NSW an 2 hour drive out of Sydney has one of the biggest canyons around and the landscape is beyond amazing. Or maybe even Ballarat and Bendigo in Victoria before the great ocean road all amazing places that show our history.

    I think Visiting Australia is a must for most travellers,

  15. Yes Australia is extortionate!! My first taste of being broke was walking into a greasy burger bar and buying a cheese burger…. $16.50!!!! I wouldn’t mind but it didn’t even come with a slither of lettuce or onion, never mind fries and a drink.

    Australia’s saving grace has got to be, even as a backpacker in a entry level job you can easily be earning $25ph in Perth. If you get on the gold mines, well… Yeh you’re mining gold 😉

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