"You're going to travel alone...?"
That hesitant, disapproving question was the most common response I heard when I told people I was going to Australia for a month by myself. I'd never traveled alone before, but I assumed I would enjoy it. I've lived alone since college, and it's not like I have a ton of friends with the means and available vacation days to tag along. So, I started planning my first solo trip.
I knew I wanted to see Sydney and Melbourne and definitely visit the Great Barrier Reef. But there were a ton of places all along the East Coast I wanted to see as well. Australians drive on the wrong side of the road, so renting a car was out of the question. And 13-17 hour bus rides every other night weren't super appealing either. The 10 day G Adventures tour from Brisbane to Cairns seemed to offer the solution. All of your travel and sleeping arrangements are made for you, and you just get to sit back and enjoy your trip--while making a bunch of new friends from all over the world.
The tour was available to 18-39 year olds, but my group of 15 ranged from 21-32. The whole thing was pure joy. We spent all of our time in one big group, huddled around a camp fire or on the beach. It felt like we all instantly reverted back to grade school--digging up every game we learned at summer camp and teaching a group of expectant 20-somethings on a yacht. We were all traveling alone--some straight out of university or using up a year's worth of vacation days--but the tour allowed us to do it together.
Day 1: Brisbane
Arrive at any time and get to know the other girls (or guys) in your shared room at the hostel. Then head down to the bar next door for dinner and a round of musical bingo/get to know each other time.
Day 2: Noosa Everglades
If waking up at 6 am every day of your vacation sounds miserable, this may not be the trip for you. After the first of many toast and cereal breakfasts, we got on a bus headed to Noosa. We settled into small cabins at a camp site near the Noosa Everglades, then spent the afternoon canoeing through the everglades. The still water was dyed brown by the falling bark of tea trees that surrounded the perimeter. Back at the campsite, we played a game of backyard cricket (my first exposure to the sport) and watched as dozens of kangaroos grazed nearby.
Day 3: Fraser Island
The next morning, the group climbed into an army-like utility vehicle that's built to handle tough terrains. It was the roughest ride of my life--if you're at all prone to motion sickness, I recommend taking precautions. Our first stop was Lake McKenzie, a beautiful rainwater lake surrounded by sand and trees, where we ate lunch and went for a swim, followed by a hike through a rainforest that grows on sand. We kept our eyes peeled for venomous snakes, but didn't see any. I was equal parts relieved and disappointed. The highway on Fraser Island is just the sand on the side of the ocean, meaning frequent detours up through the hills during high tide. We were warned repeatedly to beware of the dingos, but only managed to see one. We sat on the beach talking, drinking and playing "never have I ever" until late that night.
Day 4: Travel day
First, we got back on the giant army vehicle, then a train and lastly a bus. We got to Emu Park just in time for dinner and--after a quick game of Twister--called it an early night.
Days 5-6: Whitsunday Islands
Another long bus ride first thing in the morning then we hopped on the yacht that we called home for the next three days. We did a ton of snorkeling and went to shore once for a beach day (where--no joke--we were chased by a shark). We never wore make up and my salty, unwashed hair nearly curled into dreadlocks. It was sweaty, sunny and gorgeous.
Day 7: Airlie Beach
After one last snorkeling trip off of the yacht, we sailed back to Airlie Beach. That night we went out and stayed out until our bus arrived at 4:30 a.m.
Day 8: Travel day
Another day of travel, which we all used to catch up on lost sleep. A bus to a train to another bus finally landed us in Cairns--the last stop on our journey.
Day 9: Great Barrier Reef
Probably the best day yet. We all signed up to go snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef with the option to scuba dive (no certification required). There were a bunch of girls who had never done a dive before who hesitantly expressed interest in giving it a try (myself included). After a two hour boat ride out to the reef and a 5 minute intro course, they threw us in the water with a group of three other beginners and all of our gear. An instructor held onto us the whole time, first walking us through the safety steps on the surface, then guiding us deeper into the water. It was, in a word, spectacular. The first dive went by quickly and seemed over just as soon as it started. We all signed up for a second, longer dive at a different site. On this one, the instructor let us go, but kept us within eye sight. Learning to control your movements with your breath and glide effortlessly through the water--all the way down to the ocean floor--was indescribable. I wanted to do it 1,000 more times, but we had to head back. I had never considered diving before this trip, and now I can't wait to do it again.
,,Day 10: Thanksgiving
The last day of our tour happened to fall on Thanksgiving Day (U.S.), and, being the only American in the group, I insisted we all get together to celebrate. A few people signed up to go skydiving and bungee jumping, but I chose to get breakfast with some of my favorite new friends, then start shopping and prepping for dinner. We grilled kangaroo steaks and turkey kababs, and I attempted to make a pumpkin pie (it was more of a pumpkin custard thanks to a weak refrigerator and the humidity in Cairns). It was the perfect end to the trip--relaxed, fun and full of appreciation that we all met and got to experience it together.
10/10 would recommend. But be ready for a lottttt of travel days and not a lot of sleep.
This looks great, right? Nice view, glass of champagne--it would've been a perfect afternoon if I hadn't paid $4 each for these oysters. Sydney's rock and Pacific oysters are smaller than the Gulf oysters I'm used to, but cost more than twice as much at every restaurant near the harbor. Recognizing this injustice, I set off on a search for The Cheapest Oyster in Sydney™. It didn't take long at all because happy hour was right around the corner and, as it turns out, more than a few places offered $1 oyster deals. I went with Riley St. Garage because it was nearby, and it didn't disappoint.
Join them for "Oyster Hour" from 5-6 pm Monday through Saturday, and never pay full price again.
Fifteen hours trapped in a flying metal tube isn’t exactly my idea of a good time. The long flight from the U.S. to Australia is part of the reason I decided to stay for a whole month—any less almost didn’t seem worth the trouble.
Luckily, I spotted a deal American Airlines offered back in June to fly nonstop from Los Angeles to Sydney in their new Premium Economy section for the same price as Main Cabin—about $1,500 roundtrip starting in November. Premium Economy seats are a little wider and offer more leg room, a fold out foot rest, thicker blanket and a handful of amenities. The ticket is also supposed to come with Business Class-level food and beverage service, but that wasn’t the case on my flight—more on that later.
American Airlines developed Premium Economy seating in response to feedback from budget-conscience customers who said they wanted an experience somewhere between Main Cabin and Business Class. The company has been rolling out retrofitted planes throughout the year.
On board the Boeing 787-9 that carried me across the Pacific, Business Class passengers basically have their own bedrooms, complete with a seat that lies flat into a bed and a door you can close to block out the rest of the cabin. They also paid at least $8,000.
Premium Economy is definitely closer to Main Cabin than Business Class on the comfort spectrum, but the small improvements made a huge difference. The seat was wide enough for me to sit cross-legged when I got cold, and you can lower the aisle-side arm rest for even more space. The seats recline a little more than those in the Main Cabin, and the footrest tricked me into thinking I was more horizontal than I actually was.
If you really want to get your money’s worth, snag a seat in the first row. My feet couldn’t even reach the wall in front of me, and the foot rest and entertainment screen are better than those in the next few rows.
Speaking of, the available in-flight entertainment was off the charts. They have every Harry Potter movie! I went with The Beguiled (meh), An Education (a personal fav) and Bridesmaids (classic).
The Premium Economy ticket also includes a little bag with headphones, a sleeping mask, ear plugs, a tooth brush and tooth paste and socks. It was a bit overkill (who gets on a 15 hours flight without their own pair of headphones and socks?) but appreciated nonetheless.
I made fast friends with the woman next to me as we struggled to figure out which buttons raised the footrest, entertainment screen and arm rests. The flight attendants tried to help, but were equally as unfamiliar with the new aircraft. By the end of the flight we had figured out every button except one.
After talking for awhile, my new friend asked me how much I paid for my ticket, and I told her it was around $1,600 after taxes. She said she paid about $600 more. I attribute my good fortune to First Class Flyer, a site that tracks anomaly fares like the one I snagged.
I saw the deal and bought my ticket during the two-day window it was available in June, but it looks like American ran a similar deal again last month, so I’d keep an eye out.
As for the food situation…American sent out an email the morning of my flight saying they had stopped using one of their onboard caterers based in Los Angeles, resulting in "limited service" on my flight. A quick Google search revealed that listeria was discovered at the caterer's facility.
From Business Insider: "According to American, the airlines use a total of three catering companies and is working on securing alternative food service for its flights out of the LA. Some flights were able to secure snacks while others were made to do without food service at all. A person at the airline told Business Insider that some of the company’s flagship Los Angeles-New York flights were reduced to only drink service on Wednesday."
Worried that meant 15 hours with no food, I stocked up on snacks before I boarded. But American managed to pull through. We were served two meals (dinner and breakfast) and one snack-type thing in between that resembled a hot pocket. (TBH I was in a ZzzQuil haze at that point).
Regardless, American Airlines issued $200 vouchers for those of us in Business and Premium Economy, presumably because the food is supposed to be substantially better than what we received. I'll be sure to give a full account following my flight home.
Premium Economy is definitely worth a few extra bucks on long flights, especially if the first row is available. But temper your expectations—you still can’t lay flat for 15 hours, and you never know when the airline is going to run out of food.
Hello, all! Thanks for stopping by. If you didn't already know, I quit my newspaper job in Texas a few months ago, and I've been freelancing (ok, kinda...making an effort, at least) ever since. I love being a journalist, and I don't think I'm done with it, but I want to try a few new things before I settle into another full time reporting job I love.
Part of that is traveling--as far and as often as possible. Since I moved out of my apartment in San Antonio in September, I haven't had an address I can entirely call home. I've spent the last few weeks crashing with friends and family--and I've never been more grateful for our family beach house in Galveston, which thankfully made it through Hurricane Harvey unscathed.
But for the next month, home is Australia. I'm spending a few days solo in Sydney before I head to Brisbane, where I'll join a 10-day group tour that will take me up the East Coast to Cairns, known as the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. After that, it's a week in Melbourne then back to Sydney. Hopefully it's a good mix of super touristy and chill.
While I've never considered being a travel writer before, I figure it's probably a pretty good skill to have in my arsenal. So consider this practice. I'm not making any money, I have no idea what I'm doing and it's going to take up entirely too much of my time...but let's see how this goes.