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It's my understanding that nowadays most people travelling between Sydney and Melbourne would fly. (Correct me if I'm wrong.)

Besides being more environmentally sustainable, would it make much sense, economically or otherwise, to travel by rail or bus instead? That is, for someone who is not really in a hurry. If it would, what are the best options?

Specifically, how do prices of low-cost flights compare with trains/buses? Also, are there any convenient overnight services (with which one could save one night's accommodation cost)?

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A word of warning - if you tell your Australian friends that you're taking the train they'll think you're mad! Even if you tell them how good the trip was, and how cheap, they'll still scratch their heads as to why you didn't fly.... Ignore them :) –  Gagravarr Oct 24 '11 at 10:04
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They also might be pretty grumpy if you ask them to pick you up at Tullamarine or especially Avalon airport! –  hippietrail Oct 24 '11 at 10:07
    
What partly prompted me to ask this was reading about high-speed rail on Economist and seeing Australia is mentioned. To me, connecting Sydney and Melbourne with a high-speed rail link seems like a no-brainer (but I don't know if the Aussies agree). –  Jonik May 26 '12 at 11:06

2 Answers 2

up vote 9 down vote accepted

When I have the time I always take the bus between Melbourne and Sydney, but some people say I'm crazy.

Usually, if you book in advance, and especially if you only have carry-on luggage, it will be cheaper to fly with one of the low-cost airlines, but when you include getting to and from the airport at each end it will always be more expensive and buses and trains allow a lot more luggage at no extra cost too.

Note about prices below: some are specials from the front page, others I picked random dates until I got a hit. All are one-way for one person in Australian dollars (AUD).

Air

I really hate airports and I hate getting to and from airports and I hate paying for taxis to and from airports.

Both Melbourne and Sydney aiports have shuttle buses to the city centre but only Sydney airport is connected to the city train infrastructure. The main airport of Melbourne, Tullamarine, is very far out of the city to the north. Not bad if you're staying in North Melbourne. Horrible if you're heading out to the suburbs in the east or to the Mornington Peninsula. But the other airport, Avalon, is not even in Melbourne at all, but Geelong.

Travel time

As a rough estimate, 1¼ - 1½ hours flight time + about 1 - 2 hours to/from airport by shuttle + ½ - 1 hour waiting = 3 to 4½ hours total

Prices

(These are surely without checked-in luggage. For Melbourne I always chose Tullamarine airport.)

  • JetStar: $69 - $149 (chose best price around a random day)
  • Virgin: $85 - $95 (special)
  • Tiger: $49.95 (special)

For train or shuttlebus to/from the airports expect to pay about $15 - $20. For taxis to/from the airports expect to pay $50 or more!

Train

On one of my recent trips I was in the bus station in Melbourne checking prices and times and since I had a couple of hours anyway I decided to go check the train prices and times which are usually more expensive then bus or plane. There was a special offer on which made it the cheapest so I took it.

Travel time

10h 55m (night), 11h 14m (day), according to CountryLink website

For more details about train options, see Gagravarr's answer!

Bus

On the bus you will get a couple of meal stops in small rural cities. Usually just out of town at some cafe that has a deal with the bus company, bad food, and high prices. I like to run into the real town and find a fish and chip shop or bakery and run back to the bus!

There are more likely to be interesting people on the bus, at least for people watching if not always conversation. Plus a higher chance of unexpected things happening. Recently my bus had a flat tyre. First I annoyed the bus driver by taking photos, then I helped him change the tyre. That's much more fun than waiting in an airport, if you are crazy like me (-:

There are three bus companies I know that cover this route in Australia. Comfort level is about the same:

  • Greyhound - They cover the whole country so are the most well-known and the most expensive. They usually have the most buses per day though.
  • Premier - They cover only the east coast and are cheaper but have fewer buses per day.
  • Firefly - They cover only the southeast and are less well known so usually cheapest. Some buses are codeshare with Greyhound anyway.

Travel time

For Greyhound, according to their website: 12h (night) / 14h (day) for direct buses. Probably something similar for the other companies.

Prices

  • Greyhound: "from" $65 (special on front page)
  • Premier: $85 (standard price on a random day)
  • Firefly: $60 (special on front page)

All buses and trains depart from and arrive at easy to get to parts of the downtown areas in both cities.

(Thanks to Jonik for the travel time/duration information)

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Thanks! One thing I was still wondering after reading this: what's the approximate travel time (downtown to downtown) for each option? –  Jonik Oct 24 '11 at 16:51
    
Ouch that will take some research! (-: Night buses are almost always faster than day buses. I think on the order of 15 hours but maybe less. Also there is a faster inland route and a more scenic coastal route. –  hippietrail Oct 24 '11 at 17:07
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Here's some info I came up with. For Greyhound, travel time is 12h (night) / 14h (day) for direct buses, according to their website. For CountryLink trains, it's either 10h 55m (night) or 11h 14m (day). (Pretty slow, for a train! I guess one reason is that the rail line is 960 km long while shortest road distance is 870 km.) By plane, according to my rough estimate, it could be 1.25-1.5 h flight time + ~1-2 h to/from airport by shuttle + 0.5-1h waiting = 3 to 4.5 hours total. –  Jonik Oct 24 '11 at 19:23

There are two trains per day between Sydney and Melbourne, one during the day, and one at night, run by CountryLink. On the overnight train, you can book into a 2 berth sleeping car, or try and sleep in a regular seat.

One thing to be aware of with the sleeper is that there's only the 1 coach with sleeper berths in it, the rest of the train only has normal seats, so you may need to book in advance if you want a bed as they're often fully booked!

I've taken the train the other way (Sydney to Brisbane), and it's slow but nice. Seats were comfy, the leg room was better than on a plane, and the buffet car was really good too (they somehow freshly baked scones for afternoon tea for example!)

If you book in advance, fares seem to go as low as $69 for one way (only valid on that one train). Walk on fares are between $110 and $130, depending on the time of year. I doubt you'd find a same day plane ticket for that price, so for last minute stuff it's very good!

Another option to consider is the East Coast Discovery Pass for $130. With this you have up to 6 months to make your way along the Sydney to Melbourne route, stopping off as much as you like. If you'd like to see bits of the country along the way, this is your best way to do it!

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The Sydney-Brisbane train is run by a different company I'm pretty sure so there's a possibility the two vary quite a bit. –  hippietrail Oct 24 '11 at 10:19
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No, they're both CountryLink XPT trains - same company, same trains! –  Gagravarr Oct 24 '11 at 11:37
    
Ah it must be going north past Brisbane that's different then. Thanks for clearing it up! –  hippietrail Oct 24 '11 at 11:57
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Yes, north or Brisbane is Queensland Railways, which runs Rockhampton / Townsville / Cairns. The Sydney-Brisbane bit is CountryLink (~= NSW). It's a bit complicated because Queensland is on a different (narrower) guage to the rest of the country! –  Gagravarr Oct 24 '11 at 13:50
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You can only book the sleeper in person or on the phone, not online, so I can't check easily check about single occupancy. Seat61 has photos and rough prices, but as a guide it's about $250 (it's $88 more than a first class ticket) –  Gagravarr Oct 24 '11 at 17:24

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