Family 4wd touring on a budget
Freedom on the open road is much more of an abstract idea than a financial reality. Whether you're looking to stretch your savings as far as possible or you'd just like to set out on more weekends, it pays to be thrifty when the rubber hits the road.
The easiest way to burn through a chunk of money is to pay for convenience. Last minute bookings, expensive meals and unnecessary fuel burn can all work in harmony to shorten your trip.
To start off with, make yourself a budget. We'd advise having around 20 per cent in reserve, on top of your forecast day-to-day expenses. It's easy to anticipate things like campsite costs and petrol, and you can always ask around for advice from friends and family. Include any foreseeable one-offs, such as ferry crossings or park entry fees, as well as occasional larger spends such as a fancy restaurant here and there.
It's also good to consider what you'll want to do when you're on the road. There are plenty of free activities, such as guided walks in national parks, as well as discounted days or seasons.
Just remember to keep it balanced. Don't plan to get by on the skin of your teeth the whole time or you won't think about anything else. Travelling on too strict a budget will restrict the things you can do and see, and you may end up missing all the good stuff. Everyone needs to spoil themselves occasionally.
Consider what you're taking and don't take more than you'll need. If there's no need to take eight tea cups then don't, take two instead. If you're going to the Top End, you won't need layers of heavy bedding. While it's nice to be prepared for any eventuality it's also important to remain practical because every extra bit of weight you're carrying will cost you in the long run.
You might not want to stay out at a remote bush camp every night but you also won't want to pay big holiday park prices every night either. Splitting your overnight stays in half between paid sites and free sites can add up to a dramatic saving. And while not every free site will be the picturesque bush camp of your dreams, the gems that you do discover will offer up a range of seclusion, scenery and unexpected delights that may well become the highlight of your trip. Big sites do have all the amenities, but they may all start to look the same after a while.
ASK THE LOCALS
Who better to give you the scoop on local bargains than those who live among them? If you're in need of a haircut but don't want to spend salon prices on a barbershop trim, or perhaps you're hungry for some farm-gate produce, spark up a conversation with the the other young family at the playground or the grizzly old salt by the pier, they may know just the place.
Days and weeks on the road can take their toll in unexpected ways. While your vehicle might be up to the task, your wine glasses may not survive all those balmy evenings under the awning. If you find yourself in needing to replace odds and ends, or you forgot to pack a crucial piece of that'll make or break your favourite meal, head to the nearest op-shop. You can get a kitchen's worth of decent pots and pans with spare change at most regional thrift stores, and chances are you'll get by just fine without the latest and greatest NASA-grade non-stick technology.
If your after a taste of country living then farm stays are the way to go. Not only will you discover unique setting at budget rates, you'll also be helping out farmers and local industry. With farm stays becoming more and more common, many now offer on-site activities such as horse-riding and cattle mustering, as well as fresh produce straight from the source.
We'll go out on a limb here and say that more than a few trip budgets have been whittled down by a weakness for a good brew. But let's face it, highway-side bakeries and sandwich shops aren't exactly known for locally roasted artisanal single origin beans and world-class baristas. Unless you're happy spending $4.50 on a paper cup of scalding hot coffee-flavoured milk a couple of times a day, then you'd be wise to have a good system to brew your own. Most will have their particular stove-top percolator or hand-press of choice. Each morning fill up a Thermos with coffee made the way that only you can make it and you'll be set for the day.
Staying well-fed can be one of the most costly parts of your trip, but only if you let it. With a little bit of creativity, you can cut your food costs way down without having to sacrifice the things you love.
One great way is to get a dehydrator and stock up on bulk dry food before you go. With the water all sucked out it won't add anywhere near as much weight as frozen food and is way easier to keep. While you're travelling, keep an eye out for farmers markets and any ways you can stock up on the cheap. Catching your own fish and, if you're prepared to learn the ins and outs of local tucker, the odd spot of foraging is not only cost effective, but a rewarding way to immerse explore your surrounds. And when you do set out, pack your lunch and a few snacks so you're not tempted by ice creams and pies.
A FEW THINGS TO AVOID
Tourist destinations are notoriously expensive, it's often much cheaper as soon as you leave the main drag. While they may be convenient, truck stops are designed to keep you spending. The short walk from the bowser to the counter can be costly, so strap on your blinkers and don't get sidetracked by racks of hats and two-for-one chocolate bars.