15 Things I Wish I Knew Before Visiting Australia

Simple, practical tips to make your trip to the land down under even better.
PHOTO: istockphoto

Born and raised in the Philippines where the only seasons are hot and hotter, I wasn’t prepared for the single-digit weather in Australia this past “spring.” Melbourne was colder and windier than Sydney, and it was stormy in supposedly sunny Sydney when I came to visit. It was my first time out of Asia, and the weather wasn’t the only thing that took some adjustment for me.

Despite my pre-trip research, which I thought was pretty intensive already, there are just some things not mentioned in most travel guides. Maybe it’s the culture difference, maybe some things are just common sense stuff for frequent travelers, maybe the cold just doesn’t bother them anyway. So here are a few practical things I wish I knew before visiting Australia, which I hope can help fellow first-timers have an even more amazing trip to the land down under.

  1. Book tickets to events and shows as soon as you’ve got your plane tickets and visa.

    The Aussie arts scene is alive and kicking, especially in Melbourne, and tickets sell out quickly. Cases in point: I thought it was serendipitous that my last night in Melbourne was the first night of the Fire Gardens, a special event that set the Royal Botanic Gardens on fire (!!!). I also thought it was cool that I visited the National Gallery of Victoria on the last MoMA x jazz night (late-night access to the Museum of Modern Art limited exhibit with music presented by the Melbourne International Jazz Festival). Guess what? Tickets for both events sold out weeks before my arrival. I got my plane ticket and visa months before, so I could’ve booked online and gotten a discount to boot. Lesson learned: As soon as I found out about Broadway musical Book of Mormon showing at the Sydney Lyric Theatre, I searched for tickets and scored a discounted seat right in the middle of the intimate venue. It was glorious and way cheaper than most foreign musicals in Manila! 

  2. Almost everything closes early.

    Stores and public buildings are generally open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., though some coffee shops close an hour or two earlier. I walked into one that closes at 2:30 p.m. five minutes before closing and unsurprisingly didn’t get the best service. If you’re a night owl, you’ll have to adjust to the Aussie daytime hustle and bustle. Need extra motivation to get up early? Just think—you can get first dibs on freshly baked pastries to go with their world-famous coffee, which is ace pretty much everywhere.

  3. The weather app is your best friend.

    Check the hourly forecast and dress accordingly. It’s not enough to check the temperature; you have to account for wind and precipitation especially in Melbourne where the lay of the land makes it extra cold and windy.

  4. Layer, layer, layer.

    If you’re not used to cold weather and you’re visiting basically anytime other than the scorching hot summer, you’ll need more thermals and thicker jackets than you think. You might check the temperature and think you can get by with Baguio layers—or maybe that’s just me—but the wind and rain really make a huge difference. The only reason I didn’t freeze to death was because my friends who live there lent me the appropriate clothes. Don’t forget to wear a thin shirt underneath because the temperature can go from 8 to 30 degrees in a day! 

  5. The coins situation.

    Australian cents are way bigger than dollar coins so you might think that they have the opposite value. Instead of inspecting each coin or dumping all your coins at the register for the store attendant to choose the right ones, try the locals’ tip. Look at the color, not the size: cents are silver and dollars are gold. Easy peasy. 

  6. Bring reusable food containers or ziplock bags.

    Aussie servings are huge and you’ll most likely have leftovers especially if you’re traveling alone. I saved a lot on food by having the leftovers for breakfast the next day and even the following day, too, if it was an extra big serving. You can usually ask restaurants to wrap up the food—a select few have an anti-takeout policy—but it’s just easier on the environment if you bring your own reusable container.

  7. It’s a bird-eat-food world out there.

    Australia’s wildlife is beautiful and supersized and part of everyday life. You’ll see birds not just around the harbor but also in parks, streets, train stations—pretty much everywhere. So you’ll have to eat your snacks carefully unless you want to battle it out with them. Don’t feed any animals either as it’s not safe for you or for them. 

  8. No need to tip.

    The waitstaff won’t feel like you’ve dishonored their ancestors if you leave a tip, but it’s really not necessary. Spend your hard-earned money elsewhere. P.S. Have a credit card ready for places that do card-only transactions.

  9. Make time for weekend markets.

    This is where you can find fresh produce, packaged goods, and artisanal trinkets from all over the region, not to mention soak up the local vibe. In Melbourne, make time for the Rose Street Artists’ Market on Saturdays and Sundays and the St. Kilda Esplanade Market on Sundays. If your accommodations come with a kitchen, this is the perfect time to cook a proper Aussie meal using grade A meats and fresh produce that are cheap and huge—think bell peppers as big as melons and broccoli as big as your head!

  10. You can survive on free Wi-Fi in the central business district.

    Since I only had one gadget, I thought the most cost- and space-efficient way to have internet access was to buy a local SIM instead of renting a pocket Wi-Fi. But even though my phone was unlocked, I could only do texts and calls using the local SIM. A visit to the customer center didn’t help, and apparently the same thing happened to some friends who used other networks too. Good thing there was free Wi-Fi almost everywhere in the CBD, where I stayed. I downloaded Google Maps offline for safe measure, and when I ventured out of the CBD, I just made sure to plot my way to and fro.

  11. Wear your seatbelt even if you’re sitting in the back of the car.

    This took some getting used to as Filipinos usually wear a seatbelt only when sitting in front (if at all for some!). Be mindful of this, though, as it’s not only for your safety but also for the driver’s benefit—it’s the drivers, not the passengers, that get penalized when caught on camera.

  12. Sit on the left side when going on the Great Ocean Road Tour.

    If you’re coming from Melbourne, take the leftmost seat to get the best view of the famous coastline that stretches for hundreds of kilometers.

  13. Don’t ignore those airport brochures.

    Some thick bound brochures have discount coupons applicable to museums, day tours, and wildlife parks. As always, read the fine print to make sure you’re getting a good deal. 

  14. Stock up on moisturizers and sunscreens.

    The weather may be fickle, but one constant thing is your need to stay moisturized and protected from UV rays whether it’s rain or shine or hail. Since you’re in Australia, stock up on cult product Lucas Papaw, the cure-all ointment for everything from cracked lips to baby nappy rashes. If you want to bring some home for pasalubong, you can’t hoard from a single store since the country has had to crack down on bulk sales after Lucas Papaw started trending worldwide. My boyfriend was asked to see the manager to buy just 10 tubes, so it’s best to get a few from different stores—it’s available everywhere anyway. If you’re buying for everyone and their mother (a.k.a. all your titas), check with your airline to make sure you’re allowed to transport your loot.

  15. Last but not the least: Bidets are rare to find in Melbourne and Sydney.

    Yep, we’re going there. Most accommodations and public toilets are on team toilet paper so your bidet/tabo-loving bum will have to get used to this. On the plus side, even the dankest toilets are stocked with toilet paper so you can do your business anywhere. As an alternative, you can come prepared with wet wipes. Finally, remember that toilet paper is flushed, not thrown in the bin, as is customary in the Philippines.

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