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A pennypincher in Oz

With Australia so pricey to get to, a thrifty traveler turns to cheap lodging

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Sacha Pfeiffer
Globe Staff / December 14, 2003

I am a proud budget traveler, a deal hunter whose enjoyment of a vacation rises and falls in inverse proportion to the amount I spend on it. In other words, the more I spend, the less I enjoy.

When it comes to vacationing, I'm not just fiscally conservative; I'm fiscally militant, adept at sleuthing down cut-rate transportation, assembling cheap grocery store meals, and locating campsites where sleep can be had for a few dollars a night. But when the chance arose this year to go to Australia, my penny-pinching was put to the ultimate test.

For anyone living on the East Coast of the United States, Australia is not only a very time-consuming destination (20 grinding hours in the air, plus at least one layover), it is also a very expensive one. Round-trip plane fare alone can creep toward $2,000, and because Australia is so vast the only practical way to travel within the country during short visits of, say, anything less than a month, is to fly, at additional expense. Because my husband, Hansi, is a teacher, we were eligible for a United Airlines reduced fare to Sydney of $1,310 apiece. Since we planned to visit several other cities, we also needed a Qantas Boomerang Pass, which is like a Eurail Pass for the sky. Cost per person: $844.

A cursory session of number crunching made one thing distressingly clear: It would be the most expensive vacation we had ever taken. Air fare alone would exceed $4,300. Including food, accommodations, a few car rentals, and miscellaneous expenses, the three-week trip could easily top six grand, and might even hit seven. That may be a typical vacation cost for some travelers. But we were appalled.

The idea seemed so stunningly extravagant that we nearly abandoned it entirely. Then we considered what would await us: the Great Barrier Reef, one of the seven natural wonders of the world; the east coast rain forest, a cherished World Heritage site; the desolate, alluring Outback. And the timing was ideal; my youthful, adventurous in-laws, who are marvelous travel companions, would be in Australia for a conference.

Where could we cut costs? Lodging. Some vacationers value high-thread counts and in-room Jacuzzis. All I want is safe and clean. So why spend $100 a night or more -- as we easily could have -- on rooms that would serve mostly as refueling stations for the next day's outing? Since we would be doing a lot of flying, we needed to travel light, so camping and all the gear it entails were out. We had already vowed to eat cheaply and generally spend as sparingly as possible with the aim of keeping total expenses close to $5,500. Could we also rely on Australia's extensive network of hostels, which are open to all ages, and never spend more than $40 a night, without sacrificing safety or cleanliness?

With a few exceptions, and after an initial splurge and a couple of free nights provided by generous in-laws, we could. But it would require us to share bedrooms and bathrooms with strangers, to endure the late-night antics of younger, rowdier hostelers, and, perhaps most important, to maintain a resilient sense of humor.

Days 1, 2 and 3: Upon arriving in Sydney in mid-July, we intended to check into the Sydney Central YHA (short for Youth Hostels Association), a 530-bed, impressively renovated, centrally located hostel with hotel-class amenities, including a sauna and heated rooftop pool. Fatigued, foggy, and struggling to adjust to the 14-hour time change, we used an airport phone to call Hansi's parents, Wolfgang and Renate, who had arrived a few days before us, and arranged to meet them at their hotel before heading to the hostel.

The view from their room at the Four Points Sheraton was heart-stopping -- a sweeping vista of Darling Harbour, part of a watery necklace of natural beauty that makes Sydney one of the loveliest, most distinctive cities in the world. As we stared enviously out the window, Hansi's mom spoke these sweet words: ''We've reserved a room here for you tonight, and we're going to pay for it." I'm a firm believer that after a certain age -- surely once you're in your 30s, as we are -- you no longer take subsidies from relatives. But when you've just completed a grueling trans-oceanic flight and you're watching your budget, you don't say no.

The next morning, after a celestial sleep, the idea of trading our king-size bed for a youth hostel was unthinkable. So we booked two more nights. We never regretted the splurge, which let us shake off our jet lag in private comfort while spending three fantastic days exploring Sydney, including the dramatic opera house, the beautiful Royal Botanic Gardens, the gorgeous harbor, and legendary Bondi Beach, a mecca for surfers. Cost: $266 (first night free, then $133 per night).

Day 4: From Sydney, we boarded a train without Hansi's parents and traveled 70 miles west to Katoomba, the main jumping-off point for the Blue Mountains, a wilderness expanse that, on a smaller scale, is to Sydneysiders what the White Mountains are to New Englanders. After a plodding two-hour train ride, we beelined to the Blue Mountains YHA, a 1930s cabaret club recently converted into a meticulously restored, lodge-like, 100-plus-bed residence that is a showpiece of Australia's hostel system.

The hostel was a work of art, with original Art Deco details, a giant family room, fireplace, and such modern amenities as magnetized room keys. At mealtimes, many guests, who ranged from high schoolers to child-toting families to senior citizens, cooked in an immaculate communal kitchen. Our separate rooms in single-sex, six-person dorms (the only beds left when we checked in) were clean and comfortable, the bathrooms secure and spotless. Ross, one of several amiable, knowledgeable staffers, was a godsend, making reservations for us at hostels in the next several cities we'd be visiting. It was our introduction to Aussie hosteling, and we fell madly in love. Cost: $36 ($18 per bed).

Day 5: After two days of nature, we took a train back to Sydney and flew 2,000 miles north to Darwin, the coastal capital of tropical northern Australia, landing at midnight. A shuttle bus took us to the Darwin City YHA, where scores of loud, drunken backpackers congregated in front of an adjacent Irish pub. Inside the hostel, humid hallways stank of sour beer, like a bad college dorm. Cringing, we made our way to our room, a cinderblock cubicle with industrial carpet. Through the darkness we could make out two bunk beds and two blanketed lumps; we had roommates, and they were asleep. Down the hallway, the bathrooms were stomach-turning: moldy tile, mildewed shower curtains, overflowing garbage bins, hair clogging the drains.

We slept fitfully, and in the morning shuddered as we surveyed our room. Stray hairs that weren't our own flecked our mattresses, trash cluttered an in-room sink. Heading to the checkout desk, we passed a janitor mopping what we suspected was vomit. This was the kind of hostel that gives hostels a bad name. And we felt creeping anxiety about what our future rooms might bring. Cost: $31 ($15.50 per bed).

Days 6 and 7: Fleeing Darwin, we drove two hours southeast to Kakadu National Park, lured by the promise of bountiful animal life, including spectacular birds and rivers brimming with crocodiles. We stayed at Gagudju Lodge Cooinda, a cluster of campsites, cottages, and backpacker beds near Yellow Water Billabong that boasts a swimming pool and landscaped gardens. Our room was a small compartment in what resembled a subdivided storage locker. It contained a double bed, linoleum floor, narrow closet, clattering window air conditioner, and single bare lightbulb. Dusty red earth stained the floor and bedsheets. A metal frame poked through the lumpy mattress. On the door, a sign read, ''Check out time for this room is 10 a.m.," and an earlier guest had replaced ''room" with ''cell." But after Darwin, we felt swathed in luxury. Cost: $60 ($30 per night).

Day 8: For our third night in Kakadu, we had a reservation at Kakadu Ubirr YHA, close to extensive Aboriginal rock art. But after two wilting, sun-scorched days, we had had enough. We canceled our reservation and drove four hours west to Litchfield National Park, famous for its waterfalls, swimming holes, and towering termite mounds. Litchfield has no lodging other than campsites, and no nearby hostels. So we went to Banyan Tree Caravan and Tourist Park, where we immediately liked the German couple who ran it -- especially when they told us about that evening's free ''sausage sizzle," a dinnertime extravaganza of beef sausages, fried onions, live music, and, should the spirit strike, dancing.

We booked a forlorn-looking private room with three beds, worn carpeting, and a malodorous minifridge. With time to spare before dinner, we drove to Litchfield to swim in the Florence Falls waterfall pool, then returned for the sizzle, which was comical, convivial, and cholesterol-laden enough to trigger a vegetable craving that lasted the rest of the trip. The next morning, we swam at Wangi Falls, a ''crocodile-managed" waterfall pool where monitoring techniques ''reduce the risk" of crocs entering the area, according to signs. We survived, limbs intact, and returned to Darwin to fly to Alice Springs, gateway to the Outback. Cost: $27.

Day 9: Our stay in Alice, as locals call it, was just long enough to eat a grocery store rotisserie chicken, book transportation for the next day's five-hour drive to Ayers Rock, an Australian landmark, and sleep. We stayed at the Pioneer YHA, a nice, conveniently located hostel built in a former outdoor movie theater, where we had a chilly four-bed dorm to ourselves. Cost: $34 ($17 per bed).

Day 10: We departed Alice at 6 a.m. aboard the ''Big Emu," a hulking, circa-1980, 50-seat bus with reclining seats and wide windows. It was navigated by Lenny and Ray, two dead ringers for Click and Clack, the Car Talk brothers on National Public Radio, who worked for a folksy tour company called Emu Run that claimed to offer the longest day trip in the world: a 700-mile, 18-hour round-trip journey from Alice Springs to Ayers Rock, or Uluru, a gigantic ocher boulder reputed to be the largest monolith on Earth. We also visited the Olgas, a rock cluster that Aborigines call Kata Tjuta, or ''many heads," and capped the day with a picnic at Uluru, which glows a bloody red with the setting sun.

Because we were flying out of tiny, nearby Connellan Airport the next day, we didn't need a lift back to Alice, so the Big Emu dropped us off at Yulara, also known as Ayers Rock Resort, a self-contained village that Lonely Planet describes as a ''luxurious bubble" in an otherwise inhospitable region. Yulara is a tasteful mishmash of lodging options ranging from campsites to $600-a-night rooms. We stayed at the resort's YHA-affiliated Outback Pioneer Hotel & Lodge in a freshly painted, four-bed dorm that we shared with a quiet Italian couple, and that night relaxed at an open-air bistro where guests grilled kangaroo skewers and emu sausages on self-service barbeques. Cost: $80 ($40 per bed).

Day 11: From Yulara, we flew to Cairns, base camp for the Great Barrier Reef. We reconvened with Hansi's parents, who again treated us to a night in their hotel, the Mercure Harbourside. We mapped out the next days over dinner, then headed to the Mercure for a good night's sleep. Cost: free.

Day 12: The four of us took a 45-minute ferry ride to Fitzroy Island, a national park, where we checked into a bunkhouse at rustic, low-key Fitzroy Island Resort. It was our turn to treat, and to introduce Hansi's parents to our style of traveling. The bunkhouse was a long, primitive structure that looked like a stable and teemed with spiders and lizards. Two metal bunk beds were the sole furniture in our compact room. After snorkeling and dinner, we went to bed, and realized the rooms were separated by walls so thin we could hear other guests rustling in their sheets.

At 1 in the morning, we bolted awake to the sound of the bunkhouse doors crashing open. Our college-age next-door neighbors had returned, presumably after a long night at the resort bar. As they lurched into their room, they shrieked and cackled uncontrollably after spotting several lizards on the walls. I fumed. But on the bottom bunks, Hansi's parents slept soundly. God bless 'em, I thought -- they're equally comfortable in lavish digs and low-budget lodging. Cost: $80 ($20 per bed).

Days 13, 14, and 15: After more snorkeling and a hike to the island's summit, we caught a ferry back to Cairns. Hansi's parents returned to the Mercure, and Hansi and I trolled for a decent place to stay, choosing Caravella Backpackers, which runs two local hostels. Craving privacy, we booked a double -- a newly renovated, air-conditioned, white-tiled room with private bath -- for three nights. The room was an ideal home base for a stay that included a daylong trip to the rain forest region of Cape Tribulation with David Sperling, a naturalist and former butterfly breeder who owns Wet Tropics Safaris, and a reef boat trip with Passions of Paradise, a tour company staffed by a tanned, tattooed crew with names like Dirk and Brooksie. Our trip to the reef, an indescribably mesmerizing underwater world of brilliantly colored fish and coral, was our most extraordinary day in Australia. Back at Caravella's, we slept well each night, disturbed only by one false fire alarm that forced a middle-of-the-night evacuation. Cost: $123 ($41 per night).

Day 16: Melbourne was our last stop, and we arrived after dark without a place to stay. A guidebook steered us to Exford Hotel Backpackers in Chinatown, a reputed onetime brothel above a smoky bar. Our frigid private room had hardwood floors, a bunk bed, and a locker. Cramped bathrooms were down the hall. We slept solidly, but in the morning the reek of stale cigarette smoke was overwhelming. No heat was fine. Smoke was not. We set out to find another hostel. Cost: $30 ($15 per bed).

Days 17, 18, and 19: A few blocks away was Greenhouse Backpacker, which our guidebook gushed was ''brilliantly located" and a ''bright, friendly and extremely well-run operation with excellent facilities." It was all those things, and then some. Located in a contemporary, high-rise building with rooms that looked like converted offices, Greenhouse became our home for the rest of our stay, three days filled with meandering walks, Aussie-rules football games, and multiple visits to the fabulous food stalls at Queen Victoria Market. Cost: $120 ($40 per night).

The grand tally: For 19 nights of lodging in Australia, including the two freebies, we had spent $887, or almost $47 an evening, not far from our original goal of $40 a night.

Alas, the total three-week tab, once cash purchases were tallied and credit cards bills added up, slightly exceeded that dismaying $6,000 figure. We knew from the outset that the trip was doomed to be expensive, no matter how much we scrimped; in fact, looking back, our $5,500 target would have translated into an ultra-lean $63 a day in spending money, including lodging. Still, we took consolation in knowing that two-thirds of our bill was air fare, and that hostels had been an effective way to tame it. The vacation remained high-priced, and still seems indulgent. But we returned with the conviction that we had held down costs as much as possible. And we had always felt safe -- and almost always felt clean.

Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at pfeiffer@globe.com.

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