Working Holiday Around Australia - with Kids

When Ian Hookway started planning what would became a 3 year working holiday around Australia with his family, he discovered there aren't any "how to" guides. Thanks to his experiences, we have compiled practical advice and tips covering the main issues you'll be faced with if you're contemplating this rather unconventional family adventure.
Article By: Michelle Martin - ExplorOz
Created: January 2014
Revised: March 2014
Latest Feedback: August 2014

Make it Happen

Many families feel trapped by the struggle to achieve a desirable balance between work and family commitments and it's no wonder that some of us begin to challenge some of the stereotypical views of how we should be raising our families.

A common dream is for the yearly family road trip summer holiday to continue indefinitely. As a parent, the opportunity to spend 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with your children and partner for months on end is priceless. This sounds wonderful in theory, but any type of extended travelling is no holiday - it is a major change of lifestyle and there's a mountain of reasons why you'll hear "it can't be done".

This article is for those of you that believe it can. This article will help you make it happen.

Budget

According to the Hookway's family experience, the short answer to how much will it cost is - "a grand a week". The long answer depends on how you live on the road.

If you stay in caravan parks every night and do at least one “attraction” every day, eat out a couple of times a week then you will go through the best part of $2000 a week. Most regional tourist attractions (eg Stockmans Hall of Fame in Longreach) are around $50 to $80 per family. Bigger thrills (ie joyflights and theme parks) are hundreds of dollars. The cheap alternative is to camp in free camps at least 3 or 4 nights a week. Limit eating out to once a week, and visit free or low cost attractions as much as possible.

The big expenses on the road include:
  • Caravan park sites. Refer to separate section "Campsites"
  • Fuel. Remote areas (ie Gulf, Kimberly, mid NT) fuel prices are consistently 30 or 40 cents above larger centres. There are some exceptions. Mt Isa and Katherine have cheaper fuel than a lot of east coast cities. When you are doing 300 to 500km days, towing a load and paying these prices it begins to add up. The Hookway's vehicle averaged 17L/100km, which equates to $30 per 100km at $1.80/l. A 300km day is around $100 just in fuel.
  • Vehicle servicing. Service intervals could be every 6 weeks instead of 6 months (based on distance).
  • Snacks in servos and milk bars. Service stations cleverly offer more than just fuel and the extras can add up very quickly.
  • Washing Clothes. Caravan park washing machines are usually between $3 and $5 per load. This can add up to $20 or $30 a week. Consider purchasing a portable washing machine for around $180. Over an extended period this will pay for itself in a few months.

Free or low cost attractions are usually included in area travel brochures and tourist information centres usually have something applicable to families. Try to think outside the box. A long-term trip is unlike a short-term holiday where you are spoon-fed your adventures. Make your own adventures by seeking out unusual natural landforms, "playing" in nature, and taking longer to do things by walking or cycling somewhere instead of driving, and by doing time-consuming activities such as fishing, painting/drawing, reading, games etc. Whilst disposable income will be something you will want to protect closely, your richest possession will be time.

Work

Finding work is relatively easy as long as you are keen and prepared to give anything a go. There are lots of options here including:
  • Fruit picking. Government website for the Harvest Trail has lots of good information. Keep in mind that the good jobs are fairly competitive and get taken quickly by experienced travellers. Also a lot of fruit gets picked at the hottest time of the year. Fruit picking is generally hot, hard work.
  • Station work. The Hookway family used Outback Helpers to get contact details of stations requiring “a hand”. Wide variety of work available and no experience necessary, just a willingness to help. Most will provide a powered van site and feed your family in exchange for reasonable work hours. Some will pay you in real money. The big advantage with remote stations is your expenses become very low as you are a long way from any sort of shop.
  • Other rural work contacts include:
    • WWOOF – Willing workers on organic farms. Provide board and lodging for manual labour. More suited to single travellers though.
    • Farm Sitters and other caretaking positions. These are often advertised in rural newspapers like the Weekly Times.
  • Door knocking. Ian found door knocking in light industrial areas usually turned up something within half a day. He also found the smaller towns were always easier as businesses knew each other.
  • Trade/Profession. If you can find short term work in your usual trade or profession you will be a lot better off as the wages will be much higher.
  • Bar tender. Responsible Serving of Alcohol qualification can be done on line. A lot of isolated pubs have a high staff turnover and are always looking for staff.
  • Roadhouses – Isolated businesses are always looking for staff and have a high turnover of backpackers.
Giving anything a go is a good experience, but general dogs body labouring type work is not paid that well, and if you only have one income you will struggle to break even while living in caravan parks.

School

A cliché you will hear, mainly by people who have not travelled with kids, is that “the kids learn more on the road than they would in school”. Yes and No.

Certainly, their worldly appreciation and life skills go through the roof, but they still need the 3 R’s to keep up once they go back to school.

There are also some skeptics who would question kids social development out of a normal school. The Hookway family found their children became much more forward and made friends very easily. They could spot another kid their age in a playground and make friends with them in about 10 minutes. It is also a legal obligation to have your kids enrolled in a school unless you have a very good excuse why they are not. For 1 school term (12 weeks) or less, most schools seem to encourage the kids enjoying the extended holiday, and just keeping their eye in with a daily journal and some other basic maths activities, which their normal teacher can provide. For this length of time it makes sense as the time out of school is limited and the holiday does not get bogged down with school work.

For more than 1 term, there are two options:
  • Home Schooling – this basically involves the teacher (usually a parent) setting the curriculum and delivering the work, then demonstrating to the education department that the child is receiving a reasonable education.
  • Distance Education – This involves enrolling your child in a school of Distance Education, which all states have under the education department. You are assigned a teacher who sets work packs and these are completed and submitted each fortnight for marking. The cost is very minimal (around $150 per year) and you end up with a formal school report to take to your next permanent school. You also have the support and guidance of a professional teacher.
Teaching your own children is a very rewarding experience, but keep in mind it takes up at least 3 hours every weekday to do it properly. If you are moving camp or intending to see the local sights it can severely hinder your progress. The Distance Ed teachers are appreciative of this and don’t get too worried if all the work isn’t completed. Concentrating on the reading, writing and maths activities only can reduce the lesson time considerably.

Gear

There is no shortage of advice and opinions on caravanning, and camping equipment and ExplorOz is the perfect place to get all your information.

However, a natural human fear is to leave behind some essential item or to pack something “just in case”. Experienced travellers will tell you that if in doubt, leave it at home. Most likely you will not use it and won’t miss it. If you desperately feel you need something, it is surprising what can be bought in the most unlikely places.

TIP

Search the extensive range of Articles on ExplorOz for detailed information on what to take, and how to setup your vehicle.

Caravans

As per the section on Gear above, there is no shortage of advice and opinions, and human nature dictates that whatever you have, you will want something else.

The Hookway family did the first 12 months in a 20 foot caravan with ensuite, bunks, instant gas hot water, air conditioner and full length enclosed awning. While the kids were little they said it was great having a shower inside, and if the weather was bad they could just pull up, open the door and carry them from the car out of the weather. For them, the advantages were it ease and speed to set up and comfort once on site.

But it was enormous to tow, heavy, slow, increased fuel consumption considerably, a pain to manoeuvre and park in towns, tight caravan parks and bush campsites, and generally increased the stress of driving.

They then traded to a 14 foot wind up camper with slide out beds. This was much easier to tow, faster, much more economical, very easy to park and manoeuvre. But it took longer to set up, had no shower, was drafty in the cold weather, canvas leaked and felt like the roof was going to blow off in wind.

Regardless of what you are in, the weather is what makes the trip enjoyable or miserable.

TIP

Here's our Caravans and Camper Trailers Buyer Guide.

Water

Availability of water in South Eastern Australia (Adelaide to Cairns) isn’t an issue. Once you get to more isolated places it can be harder to source.

Obviously caravan parks are one place to fill up, but if you spend a few nights away from them you can often fill up at service stations, sports grounds, show grounds and around public toilets or other public amenities.

A vandal proof tap handle (a brass key that turns on taps with no handle) can be purchased from plumbing shops. Caution needed when using these.

A lot of visitor centres in the north (WA mainly) offer water for free or a small fee.
Be very mindful of filling up in towns with water restrictions. Make sure you ask to avoid aggravating the locals. Some places like Halls Creek charge 20c a litre to fill up.

Remote areas of Australia utilise borewater. Water quality from the Great Artesian basin is generally good. Bores are generally quite deep (averaging 500 metres) and extensive equipment is usually required to draw up water from these bores. The windmill is Australia's most well-known outback icon, used to pump water up from an aquifer on station properties but miners and surveyors also access the GAB. After drilling a bore, work crews will usually cap the bore pipe at ground level, leaving it accessible for future users, however rarely will they leave their expensive diesel-driven pumps. In some remote areas, a hand-pump might have been fitted which provides access to the water for all future users. If you come across these bores, you are generally fine to use them, but treat them with respect. Of course, you should always exercise caution when using unknown water supplies to avoid ingesting harmful water-borne diseases.

TIP

For guidelines on how much water to take, and various tips to conserve your water usage, read our Food & Water article.

Washing

Washing in caravan park laundries can become expensive over time. Most parks are at least $3 a load and some can be up to $5. With 3 kids in dusty warm places the weekly laundry cost can easily be $15 to $20 a week. Over 6 months this is $500.

Another option is to purchase a small twin tub caravan washing machine. These are around the $200 mark so pay for themselves in a matter of months. They will do a 2kg load so if you wash every day you can keep on top of it. They are usually 240v so require mains or a 600W inverter.

Power

Again there is no shortage of opinions on the best way to be electrically self sufficient. Be mindful though with kids you will have additional demands for recharging things like ipads and other electronic devices. Laptop computers are reasonably heavy electricity users so if you are away from mains power their use needs to be managed.
Powered sites in caravan parks are obviously no problem as availability is practically unlimited.
A generator can be a very handy backup, but you will find a lot of places don’t allow them (National Parks). Some camps (particularly Northern Territory and WA) have generator and quiet zones in their campgrounds. There are no rules in free camps but you will quickly lose popularity running them for extended periods.

Solar is a good option when away from mains but it pays to have everything adequately sized. An overcast day can quickly leave you with nothing to run the essentials like a 12v fridge.

Also keep in mind that above the tropic of Capricorn, even in the shoulder seasons (Autumn and Spring, night time temperatures may not get below 20, so a fridge will be kept busy and doesn’t get a rest overnight like it will in cooler conditions with cold nights.

TIP

Refer to more detailed articles on Power in our Power & Electrics section of the Articles.

Gas

LP Gas consumption will obviously vary depending on what you are running with it. A 9kg bottle on a large van running a fridge a few days a week, cooktop, oven and an instant hot water heater lasted the Hookway family 4 weeks. That was with showering kids in the van ensuite most nights.

In a smaller van with only a gas cooktop and oven, a 4kg bottle lasted 4 weeks. So unless you are spending 6 weeks at a time away from power or gas exchange’s, 1 x 9kg or 2x4kg bottles will be more than enough.

3 way fridges attract widely varying opinions, but tropical rated units are economical to run on gas if you are in one place off power for a few days. There is a lot more energy in a 4kg gas bottle than a 100AH battery.

Campsites

The main options for camping are caravan parks, showgrounds and free camps. Refer to the Camps & Accommodation Finder in Places to view maps, see photos & reviews, for over 6000 campsites throughout Australia.
  • Most caravan park powered sites are advertised at around the $30 mark. But nearly all will charge anything from $5 to $12 per child. For the Hookways with 3 kids any caravan park site under $40 was considered cheap and most they found averaged $50 to $55. This adds up to $350 to $400 a week if you stay in a van park every night.
  • The large “chain” parks or “holiday villages/resorts” offer discounts for members. Check this carefully before joining as membership for the 2 largest chains was around $40 per year in 2010. The discount was 10% up to a maximum of only around $40 per stay. Even if you stay at these places all the time it takes a long time to break even.
  • The two large chains we found also to be consistently more expensive than independent parks. You can save much more by shopping around when you arrive in town as the rates vary considerably. Look up caravan parks phone numbers and ring all of them asking for a powered site for 2 adults and x kids. You will easily save the cost of the phone calls. In some places the rates have varied between $35 and $75 for one night.
  • Travelling in popular areas and on the coast is generally more expensive. Any caravan parks near water (particularly the sea) are more expensive. Any in tourist hotspots like the Gold Coast are more expensive again (One park in Maroochydore quoted $98 a night for a family powered site. Similar rates are found amongst some parks in Batemans Bay).
  • Avoid coastal areas during School Holidays. Many parks and particularly those on the coast, hike up their rates for school holidays. This is their gold mining season and they cater to the urban family school holiday crowd and charge accordingly.
  • A cheaper option with facilities is showgrounds, recreation reserves and council owned campgrounds. Smaller towns off the main tourist routes tend to have more options for this type of camping. Often they have a flat rate of around $20 a night. Hot showers and toilets are usually available. For a lot of show societies, this is their only income other than their annual show so it supports the community. Unfortunately, there has been a decline in “non commercial” campgrounds due mainly to pressure from commercial operators to local councils. Some council owned campgrounds may only be able to accept campers if all caravan parks In the town are full ,or you can’t get into any of them because of the size of your rig or if you have a pet etc.
  • Free camping has become a bit of a buzz term for what we just thought was normal camping as a kid, but there is still plenty of it about if you know where to look. If you are in an area with a lot of back roads you can normally find somewhere to pull up for the night. Satellite view in Google maps is very handy to spot potential camps if you are in phone service. Better still, use the ExplorOz Camps Finder on Places when in service - it will show you all the campsites nearby your location with distance to each in all directions, plus you can read reviews/see photos posted by other campers. Don't forget to log your updates in Places too for any camps you use.
  • Free and low cost camping guide books such as Camps Australia Wide are essential and can pay for themselves in 2 days. It has become a bit of a victim of its own popularity though as the free camps on the main tourist routes fill up very quickly. Most on the Stuart Highway in NT are full by about 4pm so it pays to get in early.
  • State forests in some states (mainly Victoria, NSW) have campgrounds of varying development usually with no charge.
  • National Parks also have campgrounds with reasonable fees. In popular areas (ie Kakadu) they can be equivalent to caravan parks with hot showers.

TIP

Want to know more about free bush camping? See our Free Camping article with all the facts.

Work Accommodation

Long term accommodation is a bit more complicated and can severely impact your budget:
  • Caravan park powered sites long term (ie more than a week) can become expensive. Some parks have a weekly rate but this is often only a small saving (ie pay for 6 nights and get 7th free). At the rates mentioned above it can easily cost over $300 a week.
  • Showgrounds and recreation reserves, if available, are a much cheaper option. Some may have a restriction on how long you can stay. This could be as little as 2 nights.
  • Renting a house gives you a very comfortable “camp” but you may be restricted on lease terms. If the job is only for 3 months then getting a lease short enough may be an issue.

Centrelink

If you have no experience with long term unemployment or Centrelink, the process of becoming unemployed is reasonably simple but still a nerve wracking experience, according to the Hookway family.

The idea of travelling the country on welfare is bound to stir debate and rightly so. Ian says he draws the line at having a holiday on the dole, but perhaps like many of you has spent much of his working life in higher income tax brackets. He says the “tax return” they got from Centrelink over the 12 months they were eligible for any benefits was not significant. He provides a few practical tips here:
  • When you resign from your job, make sure your employer gives you a ”Severance Certificate”. This proves you are unemployed and details any leave and payout entitlements you were paid.
  • Once you have become unemployed, make sure you visit Centrelink as soon possible (like the next day). Explain your situation openly and honestly and you will be surprised what you are entitled to.
  • Some benefits you could be entitled to include:
    • Health Care Card – If you are either unemployed or low income you could be eligible for this. Keep in mind they are a state based system, so a NSW HCC is not valid in Vic.
    • Family Tax Benefit – Once your income reduces significantly, the FTB part A increases. It is worth keeping your income estimates up to date to avoid being over or under paid.
    • Parenting payment – if you have a child under 6, you will be eligible for “Parenting Payment Partnered”.
    • Newstart – This would be difficult to claim while travelling as it involves being registered with an employment agency, and demonstrating that you are actively seeking work. If you move to an area that you are less likely to find a job, the benefit is reduced.
    Many of these benefits are not means tested so don't assume you won't be eligible.
  • Online income statements – If you do work for short periods (less than 12 weeks) you can submit your income statements online. Some benefits may stop after the 12 weeks and you will need to re apply.
  • Claiming travel costs – A company called Bantacs advertises the possibility of claiming your travel expenses as part of your tax return under the itinerant worker policies. This may be possible if you can prove you had to relocate for work. Obviously you would need to have the “new job” lined up before you move on.

Mail

Redirection of mail can be done by:
  • Australia post redirection service. This is reasonably expensive and only suitable for short periods. The Hookway family however said they also found it to be fairly unreliable.
  • Mail redirection companies. These involve having your postal address changed to one of numerous companies who then redirect periodically to wherever you nominate.
  • Use a family member. Ian says they had their mail sent to his parents, who then scanned any relevant mail and emailed it to them. This worked very well for them and took the guesswork out of forwarding to a post office.
When having mail sent to be held at a Post Office:
  • Pick a smaller town if possible. A small country Post Office with one or two staff will remember your mail and be able to find it. Larger post offices will have numerous people looking for it for days.
  • Ask the sender to put your phone number on the envelope and “Please Hold for Collection”. Mail can be addressed simply as Your Name and C/- Wherever Post Office.
  • Ring ahead and let them know you are expecting mail. If it sits there for a month they will return to sender.
  • Leave a forwarding phone number just in case something else turns up you were not expecting or forgot.

TIP

Our Staying in Touch article has tons of great ideas for travellers and also covers mail options.

Internet & Phones

  • The only option for mobile service with any reasonable coverage is Telstra Next G. Other carriers may work OK in large centres but will quickly fall over even in rural (not even remote) areas.
  • Some handsets are rated for better reception in country areas. These are Telstra “Tick” phones. If you buy a phone in a country town you are more likely to get a handset that is more reliable in the bush.
  • Telstra coverage maps online will give you a good idea of where service is likely to be. Almost all towns have coverage. Other places you may get service include 5km either side of roadhouses, anywhere there is mining activity, tops of hills, some national park campgrounds, some pastoral stations, and most of highway 1.

TIP

This topic is well covered in our Staying in Touch When Travelling article and offers lots of practical tips.

Ambulance Cover

Each state system is different but essentially you can take out insurance to cover the cost of an emergency ride in an ambulance should you need it. For example, Queensland and Tasmania have it provided by the state. In Victoria and South Australia you must get an Ambulance service membership unless it is covered under your private health cover. In NSW, private health cover is the only option. The various systems are supposed to be reciprocal (ie it doesn’t matter where you need the ambulance ride as long as you are covered somewhere), but it would pay to check your state system and what you are covered for. Some private health funds may only cover you for land based emergency transport.

Roadside Assistance

This is reciprocated between states, so as long as you have cover in one state you will be serviced by the relevant provider in every other state.

Higher levels of cover are worth considering for a big trip as you will be a long way from home and often in remote places. Most base level schemes may only cover short towing distances (ie 50km) and not cover your caravan. For example, RACV’s total care provides additional services like a rental car and accommodation and much better towing provisions.

Vehicle Registration and Insurance

Most states stipulate you must transfer your license and vehicle registrations to that state anywhere from 14 days to 3 months of becoming a permanent resident. This obviously doesn’t apply to tourists, but could be considered a grey area if you are “living” in a particular place for an extended period.

The biggest hassle is when registration renewals are due. If you have contacts at the address where your vehicle is registered it will be easy to get the renewal posted to you. If you are “homeless” then it becomes more difficult.

To change your home address to a friend or family members house you need proof of residency. Some states do allow you to have a different postal address to your home address, but they may still post the rego renewal to your home address.

Check with your insurer if there are any problems with being away from home for an extended period. RACV didn’t have a problem with the Hookway's car being interstate for an extended period ie 2 years. They were unable to insure it though once they had become a resident of another state.

Registering vehicles in another state can also be difficult if you don’t have a license in that state. The Hookways changed caravans in Queensland but were able to transfer the registration into their name at their “temporary” Queensland address by applying for a customer number at the motor registry. NSW will also do the same thing.

Furniture Storage

This is listed here because it is most likely yet another hidden cost you may not yet have considered. There are a number of options depending on what is available to you:
  • Rent your house furnished – cheapest option but has obvious risks.
  • Store in your own shed while renting your house. This will be less attractive for the tenant due to reduced space.
  • Shipping containers, either buy or rent – good ones are around $3000 but you can get them for half that. Considerable cost is getting them to where you want to store. The benefit of buying is you will get most of your money back when you sell it.
  • Commercial storage – this can vary in cost depending on location and demand. $10 a day is a reasonable figure to use to determine the most cost effective way to go.
Insurance is a consideration with any form of storage. Most insurers won’t cover furniture and effects unless it is in a house, ie no cover for storage in a shed, shipping container or even commercial storage. Ian found Suncorp was an exception - they were able to insure through them by taking out a general contents policy on the house where their shipping container was parked (friend's property). He also notes that Suncorp also cover you in commercial storage for up to 12 months.

Banking and Money

Online banking has made managing money a lot easier. The big 4 banks are represented in most places. If you are with a smaller bank, you will find an ATM in most places that will accept your card with the usual $2 withdrawal fee.

Eftpos is also very widespread. There are very few cash only places left. Between a credit card and a cheque book, you will very rarely require cash for essentials when travelling in regional areas, however this could be different in extremely remote desert outposts. Can anyone list any known cash-only tourist-facilities left in Australia?

Document Storage

Keeping a filing cabinet on the road can be a challenge, and there is a risk of carrying original copies of personal documents like birth certificates.

Internet based document storage websites are a good option. If you have access to a scanner you can store pdf copies of as much of your filing cabinet as you want and have access to it wherever there is mobile phone service. Dropbox is a popular file storage site but there are others that offer encrypted and secure document storage such as Ezyvault.

Sports and Recreation Equipment

The amount of “toys” people cart around this country is staggering. Apart from the tinnies on roof racks you will see all sorts of interesting ways people transport their kayaks, pushbikes, boats, motorbikes, crab pots etc. Serious consideration should be given as to whether you will really use any of this stuff on a regular basis. It can also add extra weight and wind drag (which will equal fuel consumption), be in the way every time you set up, and prone to falling off especially on rough roads. If you are moving every day or few days, or working, you won’t have time to even unload it let alone use it.

Ian says his family carried push bikes for 12 months and only one got regular use and that was to ride to work. Even kids bikes didn’t get a lot of use and they would not have been missed had they not been taken. They also carried a canoe half way around the country and while it was good where it could be used (not many northern rivers), most of the canoeing hot spots had hire facilities (eg. Lawn Hill, Qld). There is generally enough entertainment in each destination, and along with the day to day chores and kids schooling no one will ever be bored.

Of course every family is different and you will be the best judge of what your family can't live without but the experiences and comments from people that have done it, should not be considered lightly.

Summary

This information has been provided in the hope that you can avoid some of the pain spent in researching all this information from scratch and can take heart knowing its been provided by a family that have just recently returned from a successful 3 year trip. Was this article useful? Please give it a Review, or post a Comment if you wish to discuss this topic with others.

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