How to save money by self-catering in Australia
When I was first estimating the likely costs of our Australia trip I allowed AU$50 per day for food for the 2 of us. Our actual spend averaged only AU$15 per day. What I hadn’t realised when planning the trip is that self-catering in Australia is really easy (even if you don’t stay in backpacker hostels) and that a lot of food is in the supermarkets is quite cheap by UK standards. At least, it was at a AU$ to £ exchange rate of around 2.10.
We stayed in 11 places on or 35 day trip, and only 2 of them didn’t have kitchen facilities. Of course, that had meant time spent seeking out those places, but it was well worth the effort.
Here are the details:-
Darwin – Zen Quarter Suites, a beautiful fully-equipped apartment via booking.com – it even had a dishwasher. AU$148 per night
Kakadu – Kakadu Lodge, a former miner’s lodging room in a camping park, via booking.com. Communal bathroom (only a few steps from the room) and communal kitchen. Gas BBQ facilities were also available. We had our own fridge and kettle. AU$145 per night (Kakadu is very expensive – this was comparatively cheap, even for a shared bathroom)
Pine Creek – A unit at the Lazy Lizard camping park, booked direct via their website. Comfortable A/C ensuite portakabin with microwave, hob and fridge. AU$120 per night.
Darwin – no room at the Zen Suites, but we found the Palms Motel on booking.com. We were probably just lucky to be allocated a large family room with kitchen (hob, microwave and fridge). AU$120.
Cairns – a comfortable 1-bed apartment at Il Palazzo with a full kitchen (hob, oven, microwave and fridge). You can book these apartments direct, but ours was much cheaper through Airbnb. AU$115.
Yunguburra – The Gables, a family bed & breakfast place where our ‘room’ was actually an apartment with a full kitchen (hob, oven, microwave and fridge). Booked through booking.com. Dated and comfortably shabby, but decent value at AU$90.
Mission Beach – a unit at Dunk Island View caravan park, via booking.com. A spacious 1-bed apartment with a full kitchen (hob, oven, microwave, fridge). Spartan but fine. AU$59.
Townsville – an ensuite room in the Orchid Guest House, via booking.com. The room was small but had a kettle and a fridge, and there was a decently equipped communal kitchen with hob, oven and microwave. AU$90.
Brisbane – an Airbnb place where we had the whole of the ground floor to ourselves (bedroom, bathroom and living room) and use of the host’s large fridge and kitchen upstairs. AU$75.
After almost 2 years in Asia, Australian supermarkets seemed like a wonderland. Most places had a Coles or a Woolworths, sometimes both – for what we were buying I found Woolworths better and cheaper for most things, but Coles had more own-label products that were cheaper than the branded version in Woolworths. Other supermarkets, such as the small independent ones that we found in Daintree, Pine Creek and Kakadu, and the IGA chain (or franchise?), were significantly more expensive. Markets could be good for local fruit and veg.
Meat was very cheap, especially if you found the reduced section – I had good, tender beef steaks for under AU$5. Fish was quite reasonable too, especially the ‘marinara mix’ of fish, squid, prawns and mussels for only AU$9 per kilo. Fresh fruit and vegetables could be a little pricey so it was a matter of choosing the local in-season items. Frozen veg was very cheap and frozen ready-meals reasonable, although it was sometimes hard to find meat-free ones for Mr V. Bread was cheap enough if we ignored the fancy displays and sought out the own-brand sliced wholemeal. Dairy produce was all cheaper than the UK provided we stuck to the Australian produce – although we did once score some English stilton reduced to $3.29 (our first since leaving home!).
We bought a coolbag and freezer block in Darwin which we used to keep our lunchtime sandwiches cool in the car, and to transport things like butter, cheese, mayo and milk between stops so we didn’t have to buy them each time. We also carried cereal, sugar, olive oil (for frying and salads), salt & pepper, and instant coffee. And a winebox (wine is much cheaper than beer in Australia). We squeezed lemon juice over salads instead of buying vinegar.
We also bought a couple of very cheap plastic food boxes in Cairns. We knew that we wouldn’t have cooking facilities in Daintree but we poached a couple of salmon steaks and made a potato salad to take with us. The boxes proved so useful that we’ve kept them. Breakfasts usually involved fruit, yoghurt and cereal, lunches were usually rolls or sandwiches of cheese, tuna/egg mayo or ham, and dinners were typically fish+potatoes+veg, pasta+salad, or stir fry. If we had an oven we might have a pizza or a quiche (unlike in the UK, Australian supermarket quiches need further baking, not just reaheating).
Even in Alice Springs, where we were in a hotel room with only a fridge and kettle, we managed to eat dinner in our room 3 nights out of 4 by buying things like ready-cooked salmon, prepared salads, and instant couscous. We were already carrying a couple of plastic bowls, spoons and a kitchen knife as we normally breakfast in our hotel room if none is provided.
If we had eaten out all the time our estimate of AU$50 per day would have been way under I think. Main courses started at around AU$20 in a casual pub-type places, sandwiches about AU$8 from a bakery, coffee AU$4. A fish & chip or burger lunch in a cafe was around AU$15. We could probably have spent AU$100 a day easily. I assume it’s the cost of labour that makes it all so expensive.
Over the course of our 35 night trip we had 2 restaurant dinners and 2 restaurant lunches (and one of those was because we forgot the sandwiches the day we went to Magnetic Island). If we hadn’t been self-catering we could probably have saved some money on accommodation, but I don’t think it would have been much, given that we would always have gone for a decent place with A/C, fridge and private bathroom – we don’t do backpacker hostels. Of course, it would have been great to eat out more and sample more of Australia’s great dining. But we probably saved ourselves almost AU$2000 by self-catering in Australia.