How to Do Sydney on the Cheap

It’s easy to fall in step with Sydney’s sunny temperament once you’ve arrived, but distance and cost are enough to keep many from ever attempting the trip.

Both are reasonable concerns. Flight times are intensely long, and Australia’s Harbour City is consistently ranked as one of the world’s most expensive cities.

There’s not much anyone can do to speed up the flight, but you can certainly stretch your dollar with a little foresight and planning. In Sydney, some of the best ways to spend the day require spending little to no cash at all.

Here’s how to best plan your trip down under without going over budget.

Coastal Walks

Take a day (or several) to soak up the local beach culture, starting with a walk along Sydney’s sandstone cliffs. The most popular section of this trail winds along for nearly 4 miles, starting in Bondi, crossing through Tamarama, Bronte, and Clovelly, and finally ending at Coogee Beach. This walk can take anywhere from 2 to 3 hours and dawdling is encouraged. Each beach has its own individual vibe with picnic areas, snack vendors, and natural rock pools for creature-free dips in the Pacific.

Coogee Beach is home to McIver’s Baths, the last remaining women-only cliff-side ocean pools, as well as Wylie’s Baths, a turn-of-the-century rock pool and sports club long used as a training facility by Australia’s Olympic swimmers. There is a small entrance fee of $2 for these two baths.

Of course, the Sydney coast extends in both directions beyond Bondi and Coogee, and those with the time and energy are welcome to walk it. Begin at Watson’s Bay, walking towards Bondi, stopping at McQuarie Lighthouse, Australia’s oldest. And from Coogee, take the path further to Maroubra Beach, a popular spot among surfers.

Alternative Accommodations

If you’re the type of traveler who has an aversion to homestays like FlipKey or Airbnb, Sydney room rates may cause you to reconsider. That’s not to say you can’t stumble upon a great hotel deal. Sometimes you can. But overall, hotels in this city are not cheap, and you’d be wise to consider alternative accommodations such as pub rooms and even certain hostels, both of which can sometimes be as sleek and flashy as any boutique hotel. 

Extended-stay hotels are often a great value, particularly over the Christmas holiday season when business travelers tend to stay away. The interiors may skew towards bland, but the kitchenettes make it easier to eat in and avoid spending on meals out. And unlike an Airbnb, someone is always around to change the linens.

Getting Around

Exploring Sydney on foot may be the most economical option, but after a full day of cliff walks your feet may disagree. On days when you just need to hurry up and get there, Sydney offers a reliable network of buses, trains, and ferry service to shuttle you back and forth. Tap on and off with your Opal card, which can be purchased at news kiosks or at stations, as well as at the airport upon arrival to use on the rail link to the city ($14.30 for adults). Card value can be added in increments of $10. Remaining card balances can be topped off on the go using the Opal app on your phone. Fares are determined by distance, ranging from $2.60 to $5.60, with a daily cap of $15.40, $61.60 weekly, and $2.50 on Sundays.

Taxis and Uber are available if you absolutely must, but fares are likely to be higher than at home. Remember, in Australia it's considered polite to ride shotgun beside the driver. Otherwise you may be seen as snooty, and your star-rating could take a hit.

Cheap Eats

No one wants to spend every night of vacation huddled over an Airbnb stove, and it would be pointless to travel all that way without properly exploring the Sydney food scene. You don’t have to drain your bank balance to enjoy a good meal. Here you’ll find great quality Laotian, Thai, and Vietnamese food at reasonable prices, at least in Sydney terms.

King Street in Sydney’s trendy Newtown suburb offers a number of such options, including Rowda Ya-Habibi, Alice’s Thai, and Lentil as Anything.Whatever you settle on for dinner, always save room for a scoop or two at Gelato Messina, a favorite among Sydneysiders, with over 40 unique flavors like pear and rhubarb, gianduia, and panna cotta with fig jam, all homemade.

Museums and Gallery Spaces

However geographically removed Australia may seem, in many instances Sydney can feel leaps ahead of other cultural capitals in the northern hemisphere. Maybe it’s the sense of distance that drives Sydney creatives to be so innovative in the arts. Entrance is free to many museums including the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and Carriageworks, as well as other art spaces such as Sarah Cottier Gallery, White Rabbit Gallery, Artspace, and Alaska Projects.

Parks and Gardens

There are so many plant and animal species unique to Australia, many of which can be seen for free in Sydney’s parks and gardens. The Royal Botanic Garden occupies 75 acres along the harbour, just a short walk from the iconic Sydney Opera House. Free guided walking tours of the gardens are available every morning at 10:30am.

About an hour’s drive south of Sydney is the Royal National Park, designated in 1879 and covering nearly 40,000 acres of coastal preserves, rainforest, and bushland. Camping is permitted in designated areas and must be registered in advance. The entrance fee is $12 per vehicle per day. 

Flight Planning

Booking a flight to Sydney is a lesson in getting what you pay for, and it’s hard to beat Qantas in any category other than price. Typically, you’ll find the lowest fares to Sydney are on Chinese carriers and involve lengthy connections in Shanghai or Beijing. This is either a grueling hassle to be endured or a chance to explore another city, depending on your perspective. If you side with the latter, Air New Zealand regularly discounts fares to Australia, which also allows for a choice of stopover in Auckland or the Cook Islands. Fares are generally at their lowest for travel during Australia’s winter, from June through August, with the Christmas holiday period being the most expensive. If you’re hoping to swap out a few weeks of brutal winter for Australian summer, try searching in February or March when fares drop a bit. On the low end, fares can range anywhere from $850 to $1,600 round-trip. Peak fares can be much higher. 

Remember: the less you spend on airfare, the more you can budget for occasional splurges on dinners and shopping. Stay on top of fare sales to Sydney by setting free airfare alerts.

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