Why these places?
We had long wanted to see the Great Barrier Reef and to travel the Gibb River Road in the Kimberley in north-west Australia. A train trip across the Nullarbor Plain might be an idea too if we were going to be in both west and east Australia. Why not make it a round the world trip as we did when we went to Australia in 2009?
In the end we visited 8 countries (Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, East Timor, Australia, Samoa, American Samoa and the USA) and travelled by plane, ship, train and car over 3 months.
In this post I set out how we organized the the trip and how we dealt with various practicalities.
Planning and guide books
Most of our planning was done on the Internet. We couldn’t be burdened with many books because of baggage restrictions but did take the Lonely Planet Australia and Lonely Planet South Pacific with us. We also downloaded some chapters from the Lonely Planet South-East Asia. We used the map of Australia we had in 2009.
I also bought the basic Kindle before we left but only used it for leisure reading.
Since the Kimberley was our number one priority we started by researching this and simultaneously investigating options for flights. We agreed that we are too old now for camping in the wilderness, and quickly discovered that doing the Kimberley without camping needs careful planning, well in advance. Several companies rent 4WD vehicles (which are essential), but they get booked up months in advance. Accommodation is also sparse, and some tends to get block-booked by tour groups.
The problems were solved when we found Bluey Travel on the Internet. They organized a wonderful trip with 4WD, accommodation and plenty of information. I can’t praise them too highly. Everything is expensive (and got more expensive with the collapsing pound), but if you want to see it you have to bite the bullet.
Early on in the planning stage I spent some time investigating round the world air tickets especially with the oneworld alliance which includes the main Australian airline Qantas. We thought about going to Burma on the way but it was the rainy season and finally settled on seeing a bit of Malaysia instead.
Once we had found the cruise from Singapore to Darwin and decided to take the train from Perth to Adelaide, a round the world ticket seemed pointless, and much too inflexible. We decided to book individual one-ways.
An e-mail from expedia or opodo alerted me to an Etihad sale and so we started with buying one-way tickets from Manchester to Kuala Lumpur via the Etihad web site.
We find that kayak.co.uk is usually the best site for getting information about air tickets. You can see what’s available 3 days on either side of your chosen date and you can follow a link from kayak to the source of the fare. Often we just go straight from kayak to the airline’s web site, but we did buy some tickets for this trip from sites we had never heard of before and all worked fine.
Another early booking was from Pago Pago in American Samoa to Honolulu on Hawaiian Airlines as this flight only goes twice per week. It was actually the most expensive flight we took. We travelled on Virgin Australia and Jetstar within Australia and on Virgin from Brisbane to Samoa, all with fares found on kayak.
Getting from Samoa to American Samoa turned out to be a more of an issue. It’s only a half hour flight, but airlines on this route start up and fail regularly (usually without updating their websites). When we were planning, just one small airline Polynesian Airlines was flying the route. We exchanged several e-mails with them but they kept saying they didn’t have a timetable for October.
We began to wonder if this was a plane that went when it felt like it, but eventually we were able to make a booking when we were in Australia, which turned out fine. They couldn’t take a foreign credit card online and so we just sent them a fax with the details. There were only 7 people on the plane, but we had to have the ticket before getting on the plane from Australia to Samoa, otherwise we would not have been allowed on the plane from Australia.
We wanted to go to our house on Florida on our way home from Kauai. This could all have been expensive one-ways until Martin remembered that we had some frequent flyer miles on Delta Airlines. These were left over from a trip to Brazil on Pan-Am (remember them?) in the 1980s and had been transferred to Delta after the demise of Pan-Am. They had been languishing in the account ever since because they weren’t enough for two transatlantic round-trips, but they fitted very nicely for two one-ways from Lihue on Kauai to Orlando.
We used more Star Alliance frequent flyer miles from Tampa to Manchester on Lufthansa.
All the flights (except the free ones) were on inflexible and non-refundable fares. We recognized that that was a risk on a long trip with lots of potential for things to go wrong, but it all worked out. The much greater cost of flexible and refundable tickets makes it worth taking the chance. A round the world ticket would have allowed us to change the dates of segments, but would have been much more expensive.
Our long dialogue with P&O Australia over disembarking from the Pacific Eden on their Singapore to Cairns cruise at Darwin is documented elsewhere in this blog. We found this cruise via an internet search which led us to a cruise agent and so booked it through them although we could just as easily booked directly with P&O. We were glad to be able to choose our cabin.
We booked the ferry to Kangaroo Island online direct with the ferry company Sealink about two months beforehand and were very impressed with the way they dealt with changing our booking because of the storm. They very quickly e-mailed us direct with information and a contact phone number.
The car rental company in Samoa booked the ferry from Upolu to Savai’i for us, all arranged by e-mail.
The man in seat61 web site is the best source of information about trains. We found out from this how to get from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore by rail and, more importantly, when there was going to be a change of timetable because of electrification. We were able to book this ticket online and got numbered seats.
It was easy to book the Indian Pacific train from Perth to Adelaide online. This train only goes once per week and their web site gives you a good overview of availability. It is quite expensive: we realized why when we were on it. The train is about a third of a mile long, with masses of crew, but only takes just over 220 passengers (plus a few of their cars!)
In all we rented nine vehicles on this trip, including two to get to and from the airport to our house in Florida where we have our own car.
We tend to rent from Budget wherever we can but ended up with several different companies on this trip. Bluey travel arranged the 4WD in the Kimberley for us from Thrifty. Unlike most people we met, we had no car problems, not even a flat tyre.
You have to watch the small print if you want to take the car off a sealed road. After checking with them that we could take the vehicle to Kangaroo Island we got a 4WD from Budget in Adelaide – and needed it for the gravel roads.
Finding a good deal for a one-way rental in Queensland proved a bit more difficult but we got what we wanted from East Coast Car Rentals via an Australian consolidator car rental site.
Martin found a recommendation for a car rental company in Apia, Samoa and e-mailed them to make a reservation. They were very helpful and delivered the car to our hotel. In American Samoa we used the rental car belonging to the hotel where we stayed – which was half the price quoted by Avis (the only major car rental company there).
As noted in my blog on Kauai, Budget were too aggressive in trying to sell us more options, but their car was fine.
In Florida it’s best to rent as a visitor with a UK address – you then get a deal which includes all the insurance you need at well under £30 a day for a small car. We tend to rent from Budget or Alamo there. There is no drop-off fee for a one-way car rental in Florida and we can drop the car near to our house.
We usually resist the car rental agent’s attempts to rent us a larger car or sell us extra insurance. In Australia there is a very high excess on the insurance which comes with the car, but we have an annual policy to cover the excess.
We thought about renting a car to go from home (in the wilds of the Yorkshire Dales) to Manchester airport, but then found a deal on the Internet to leave our own car in the long-term parking at Manchester for 3 months for just over £100, or barely more than £1 per day. This was definitely worth it even though we had to get the AA to deal with a flat battery when we got back.
We took 2 of the cruise ship’s own excursions. We booked the visit to the Komodo dragons as soon as we booked the cruise (Komodo is a small island, with just one village, and we were not going to risk missing the dragons.). The other one, to Lombok, was last minute. Usually these excursions are very expensive. We did some homework on the cruise forums beforehand to see where exactly we were going to dock and what other possibilities there were.
We booked the 4WD Cooktown trip online as soon as we knew when we would be arriving in Cairns. We really wanted to do this and they need a minimum of 4 people and only go 4 times per week.
We were able to book the helicopter trip in the Bungles Bungles just the evening before. For Kuranda and the Great Barrier Reef we had researched trips well beforehand mostly via the excellent web site of the Cairns and Tropical North Visitor Information Centre. We were able to book them after we arrived in Queensland – which had the huge advantage that we could choose a day forecast to have settled weather.
Unusually for us we booked most of the accommodation beforehand. The exception was in Queensland when we wanted to be flexible and thought there would be plenty of places to stay.
We tend to use booking.com for hotel reservations, but normally check the price with hotels.com and expedia. In just one or two instances hotels.com was cheaper. Booking.com includes wifi in the list of options – it was an essential for us. We found that more and more hotels are now offering two rates, one with free cancellation (usually up to the day before arrival) and a cheaper one where there is a penalty for cancelling. Wherever we could we selected hotels where there was no penalty for cancellation as we were booking some way ahead.
In addition neither of us likes to set out on an empty stomach and on booking.com you can also easily see whether breakfast is included.
Using topcashback we managed to accumulate quite a bit of cashback from booking.com.
We find that it’s usually worth having a look at some of the online reviews of hotels, provided that you don’t believe every word they say.
We found that most motels in Australia have kitchen facilities, with a minimum of fridge and microwave but more often with a sink and dishes etc.
For Kauai we used vrbo.com to find an apartment to rent privately. We first identified Sealodge as a good location. There was plenty of choice and plenty of information on individual units there.
Apart from the cruise and the Indian Pacific (and a few places in the Kimberley) where all food was included, we were mostly organizing our own food. We also knew that we were going to be outside towns and a long way away from food during the day for a lot of the time.
We took a couple of picnic plates and a good knife from home and bought some picnic cutlery in Darwin. On most days we just had a picnic for lunch. There are plenty of picnic tables in Australia, but none in Samoa.
For the Kimberley trip we bought a cheap coolbox in Kmart in Darwin and kept some lunch food in that. We were able to freeze down the freeze pack in a few places on the way. At the end we just donated the coolbox to the Broome B&B for another guest to use.
Mostly we went to a restaurant for dinner and finally got used to the leisurely service in Australia. The food there was very well presented but we did find it to be rather protein-heavy with fewer vegetables than we like. We usually just had some of our own fruit or yoghurt for dessert. Sometimes when we were in a motel with a kitchen we had a microwaved TV dinner with some salad and fruit or yoghurt. After 10 weeks of travelling it was nice to be able to cook in a real apartment in Kauai.
It was very easy to buy picnic food and fruit at Coles or Woolworths in Australia. It was less easy in Samoa although we found a supermarket in Apia. On American Samoa we had to resort to McDonalds and tuna sandwiches from small shops for lunch. Safeway in Kauai had everything you might want but at Hawaiian prices – pineapples were much dearer than in Sainsburys.
Almost all the places we stayed in provided an electric kettle and we made sure that we set off each day with a flask of strong hot coffee in case we got tired in the middle of nowhere.
We don’t drink much at all when travelling but we did notice that the price of some Australian wine in the shops in Australia was a lot more than it costs in the UK.
We have an annual travel insurance policy which covers all the world and was fine for this trip. We also have an annual policy which covers all of the excess on car rentals.
We were mostly going to be in hot weather but we needed to take a few warm clothes for South Australia. We also took some smart ones for the cruise but could have managed without some of them as the Australians dressed more casually than we expected from the US-based cruises we had been on before.
Most of our flights had a baggage limit of 23kg. We had one spinner suitcase each which when full came in just below this weight and somehow managed to escape excess baggage fees for the two flights which had a 20kg limit – partly by stuffing jacket pockets with heavier items.
As we usually do on a long trip, we took a small collapsible bag inside one suitcase. We used it on a day to day basis when we had a car. We take it into our hotel and swap the clothes round between it and a suitcase every four or five days and so we don’t have to take a lot of baggage inside every day.
We had enough clean clothes with us to last about two weeks. Laundry was a not a problem in Australia as most motels had a laundry room.
We also had one day backpack each as cabin baggage. Medicines, cameras, chargers, laptops, paper copies of some of our bookings and my small soft-sided handbag soon filled them.
Laptops and wifi
The internet has made a huge difference to planning and travelling on a trip like this. In the old days we often just winged it with accommodation, but this trip we only arrived somewhere without booking about twice.
We both have fairly large laptops at home and did not want to carry them around. In early summer we discovered that Lenovo were selling the 11.6 inch screen Ideapad 100s Windows 10 laptop very cheaply. We bought one for the trip and then a bit later a second one so that we could have one each. They were much cheaper than a tablet. I wouldn’t want to use this Ideapad as my main laptop, but it was ideal for the Internet, paying bills back home, downloading photos and writing notes for this blog.
Free wifi was available just about everywhere except when we were in really remote places or on the cruise ship or the train. We purchased some Internet time on the cruise ship. It was cheaper than on any of the other cruises we have been on and worked reasonably well.
Martin has a bridge camera which is rather heavy and another small camera. I just have a small camera and most of the photos on the blog pages were taken with it. I did include a few from Martin’s cameras. Only the selfie at the Petronas Towers was taken with a phone camera which I don’t really like to use.
Wherever possible we paid with a Halifax credit card which does not charge for foreign currency transactions. Martin kept track of the account online to make sure that all was OK and paid off in time. Surcharges for paying by card are common in Australia (and in Samoa), and where the surcharge was 3 or 4% we tended to pay in cash. When we needed cash we found ATMs almost everywhere. We used a Nationwide ATM card which does not charge fees for foreign cash withdrawals.
Most of our expenses were in Australian dollars. The expensive items were the cruise, the Kimberley trip and the Indian Pacific train. When we started to plan the trip the pound bought two Australian dollars. It fell sharply after the Brexit vote and was hovering around 1.60 Australian dollars when we were in Australia. Much of the trip cost us 20% more than we had expected when we planned it.
Hawaii is one of the most expensive places in the US and our stay there also cost us about 15% more than we had expected because of the fall in the value of the pound.