Saturday, December 13, 2014

One splurge per continent: Australia's Rail Explorer Pass.

We really wanted to relocate a camper from Perth to Adelaide (did you know this is a thing? you can relocate campers and RVs for just a few dollars a day plus the cost of gas? check it out!).

However. Every time we mentioned this idea, people stared at us in horror. "Are you sure that's a good idea?" "It's the most boring drive in the world!" "All you see is green, then brown, then green, then brown, then lots more brown!" "I don't care if you loved driving across the plains and prairies of Canada - this is no drive across the plains and prairies of Canada!" "Umm...have you seen Wolf Creek?"

Granted, the outback is vast and parched, particularly on this stretch of road, and petrol stations and supermarkets are few and far between. If anything went wrong we'd be without mobile phones and would likely be stranded for hours. Oh, and there was that pesky detail about Patrick's drivers license expiring last June...

So we ditched the relo idea and splurged on the Rail Explorer Pass from Great Southern Rail. For just $495 each, we got unlimited travel on The Ghan, Indian Pacific and The Overland for two months - perfect for our timeframe and the places we wanted to visit. Trains only run once or twice a week and two of the three legs take about three days, but we were in no hurry so that was cool. The pass is only valid for the "Red Service" seats, not the sleeper cars, but that was cool too. After 18 months on the road we were used to sleeping in all sorts of conditions. Nothing could be worse than the overnight bus trip from Sapa to Hanoi.

Best of all? This particular pass is only available to foreigners. Purchasing individual tickets for each leg would've cost us almost $3000! Even airline flights would've cost more than the pass, and we would've had to plan much farther in advance if we'd traveled by plane. Sorry, Australian friends, but for once the tourist tax worked in our favor.

Perth to Adelaide

Adelaide to Darwin and back

Adelaide to Melbourne

The Red Service car was fairly comfortable. The car has a few showers and the train staff provide towels, which was a nice perk. We brought our own food and purchased hot water for our instant coffee and tea from the cafe (we weren't supposed to bring our own alcohol - um, riiiiiiiiiight).

homemade breakfast in the cafe

best train snack ever:
cookies with banana, peanut butter and honey from Darwin

no outside alcohol... riiiiiiight

Whenever we passed anything historic or photo-worthy, the train manager would make an announcement and give us a little background on what we were seeing. Sometimes they even had audio programs that gave a lot more context.

the Iron Man Monument marks the one-millionth concrete
rail that replaced the old wooden rails in 1980

the Finke River, wide and usually dry,
thought to be one of the oldest rivers in the world

and the award for the most unimaginative town name goes to...

We also made a few stops along the various routes.

Cook, Australia: population 4

Alice Springs: lest we forget

Katherine: not much going on

Of course, the best part was just watching the scenery. We saw parts of Australia that most Australians will never see. And yes, the ride from Perth to Adelaide is brown-green-brownnnnnn... but it was absolutely gorgeous, possibly our favorite leg of the trains. We also witnessed some stunning lightning storms on the way to Darwin. Photos can't possibly do the landscape justice but here are a few glimpses...

sunset, day one

on the way to Darwin: not Uluru
but definitely awesome big sky

on the way to Darwin: brown green brown
(and a little blue)

close to Darwin

farmlands outside of Melbourne

Every so often the train stopped for several hours and optional tours were available (for a price). The side trip to Katherine Gorge was the only one that was remotely appealing, but because of our timing the river was low and we'd only get about an hour there so we just didn't think it would be worth the extra cost. We also didn't stay over in Alice Springs and head out to Uluru. After all, we had to save some things for next time!

The final numbers:
  • $495 for the ticket
  • 9447 km traveled
  • 152 hours on the train over about 7 days
hour 1

hour 80

hour 152 - we survived!
  • 3 train lines traveled
  • 33 crossword puzzles completed
  • 2 books finished (but at least 5 were started before we got distracted by scenery)
recommended reading
  • 4 bottles of wine consumed
can't bring your own alcohol?

A few down sides to the Red Service:
  • The seats recline quite far, but the armrests don't move so you can't really curl up and get comfortable. There are also no footrests. Sitting in these seats was fine, but sleeping wasn't the most comfortable. (Still not worse than the Sapa-Hanoi overnight bus though!)
  • On one train we were allowed to eat our own food in the cafe during off-hours or just sit in there for a change of scenery; on the other trains we were asked to eat at our seats to save the cafe seats for patrons. That was fine, we got it - but on these trains we also weren't allowed to sit in the cafe when no one else was there. The red seats were alright for a few hours at a time but having alternate seating options over 48 hours would have been really nice.
  • We also weren't supposed to go into the other cars. Apparently "Red Service" patrons aren't worthy enough to mingle with the "Gold" and "Platinum Service" patrons. Hmmmph. Between this rule and the "don't sit in the cafe unless you're buying from the cafe" rule, this meant no escape from the annoying 20-somethings in our car on Darwin-Adelaide leg. Sigh.
Despite those minor issues, we highly recommend this method of travel if you plan to visit Australia for an extended period of time. Please leave a comment or email us directly if you have any specific questions - we would love to share any additional details or suggestions with you. And if you have done one or more of these train trips, leave a comment and let us know about your experience!


  1. How many stop can i make with this pass?

    1. Hi Khairul, thanks for your question! Not sure what you mean by "stops" - most of the train routes don't have many actual stops along the way. But you can ride the routes as many times as you like while the pass is valid.

      You do have to pay an additional service/fuel fee that ranged from $14-20 per person per trip when we did our rides. Also, you will have to reserve a seat in advance and the trains only run once or twice a week so planning is pretty important.

      Check the Great Southern Rail web site ( for much more detailed information and current pricing. The folks at the visitor center in Perth were also really helpful to us.

      Hope that helps...?

  2. one day i skipped school and rode the Metro all day for like $1.75

    1. Wow. Back when milk was $1.50 and gas was $0.75.

    2. not really. you just can't exit any of the stations unless it's the same one where you initially arrived.