Traveling to Australia as a family is easier than you think
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Getting to Australia using points and miles can be a challenge. Airlines are usually stingy with award inventory for this aspirational destination, especially in business class. But let's assume you did your research on how to get to Australia using miles, you found the unicorn availability and managed to get tickets to get your family to Australia. Now what? That’s the exact question I was confronted with over the summer when I scored business class seats to Sydney for me and my family.
When the dust settled on our research, we ended up with a 16-day trip to Sydney and Port Douglas (a great jumping-off point for the Great Barrier Reef). My wife and our two children called it the trip of a lifetime. It was the longest family trip I’d ever planned. I learned quite a bit about how to navigate Australia with kids and I’m happy to share the details.
There are nonstop flights from the United States to a number of Australian cities, including Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney. They're all great places to visit, but Sydney stands out as an iconic city everyone should visit at least once in their life.
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Getting around Sydney
Sydney is a very easy city to navigate with kids, and that starts as soon as you land at Sydney International Airport (SYD). Both the international and domestic terminals are connected to Sydney’s train network, and there are even discounted fares for children. Children under 4 travel for free and kids ages 4–16 receive a discount on all fares. You can purchase Opal cards as you depart the terminal and follow the signs to the train platform. The cards an be recharged at virtually every station in Sydney. (Be aware that you can’t get a refund for any unused funds placed on a card unless you have an Australian bank account and address.)
Renting a car really isn’t necessary when staying in Sydney, unless you plan to take a day trip or longer to a destination like the Blue Mountains (and even that trip can be done via a picturesque train ride). Uber and Lyft are prevalent downtown, making a car rental an expensive, unnecessary proposition for many visiting families.
Once you’re downtown, your Opal card gives you access to the best views in the city, which are from the ferry system. Sydney is a coastal city, with many interesting destinations alongside the water. The city makes excellent use of ferries to transport people quickly and efficiently.
They also provide one of the cheapest sightseeing tours, especially with low weekend fares. The ride to Manly Beach in New South Wales was one of our favorites -- just a few dollars for roughly an hour’s worth of unbelievable views.
If you plan to tour the city extensively, you'll enjoy the daily and weekly limits on Opal fees. Opal caps the total amount you'll pay over the course of a day or week, regardless of the number of times you ride a ferry or train.
Currently, the daily max is $16.10 for an adult. Sunday is also a great day to rely on trains and ferries as the daily max is $2.80. (Trips to and from Sydney Airport are exempted from these limits.)
Related: The Best Credit Cards for Family Travel
Where to stay in Sydney
Sydney has many great lodging options for folks looking to redeem points, with representation from all the major chains including IHG, Hilton, Hyatt and Marriott.
Our family chose to split our time between the Hyatt Regency and the Park Hyatt. While the Park Hyatt is a wonderful property, it’s also a Category 7 in the World of Hyatt program, meaning 30,000 points per night. Even though the hotel itself is small, there are plenty of connecting room options, with many rooms having pocket doorways in the hallways to join them. For World of Hyatt elite members, this hotel is one of the very few that does not participate in the Globalist suite upgrade program.
The Hyatt Regency is a Category 5, which means redeeming 20,000 points per night. That 10,000 fewer points per night can really help stretch out your balance for a longer vacation. This hotel is completely renovated, and virtually brand-new from top to bottom. The rooms are in great condition and there are plenty of connecting options for families. Unlike the Park Hyatt, the Regency does participate in the Globalist suite upgrade program if you’re trying to leverage your elite status to fit a family of four in one room.
The club lounge at the Hyatt Regency is excellent. On top of providing a full meal service for breakfast and dinner, the staff doted on our children. They had memorized our kids’ favorite drinks by day two and would help them put together a plate of food at each meal.
Both properties are excellent choices for families at different budget levels. They’re also situated in the heart of downtown near train stops and ferry terminals.
You can build your Hyatt balance with the World of Hyatt Credit Card that's offering a 30,000 Bonus Points after spending $3,000 on purchases within the first 3 months from account opening. Plus, up to 30,000 more Bonus Points by earning 2 Bonus Points total per $1 spend on purchases that normally earn 1 Bonus Point, on up to $15,000 in the first six months of account opening.
You can also transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points to your Hyatt account instantly at a 1:1 ratio. Earn Ultimate Rewards on a variety of credit cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve, Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and Ink Business Preferred Credit Card.
What to see and do in Sydney
The list of activities in Sydney is virtually endless. If you’re not afraid of heights, you should definitely consider Bridge Climb. Some will say it’s too touristy, but where else can you climb 500 feet above the water on the top of a bridge? The views are truly incredible. Bridge Climb books up quickly, so you may need to reserve ahead of time to find room for a family. Children need to be at least 8 years old. The Express Climb is more than long enough, saves a few bucks and still holds kids' interest. Make sure to take advantage of the free access to the museum that comes with your purchase. Prices for adults range from $174 to $403 AUD ($120 USD - $277 USD) for standard climbs and from $148 to $293 ($101 USD - $200 USD) for children ages 8 to 15 years old.
Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair is surrounded by the Royal Botanic Gardens. This can be a great place for a morning jog but also to wander along the water’s edge and enjoy a quiet afternoon picnic. It's just a short walk from the iconic Sydney Opera House. Your kids may or may not want to stay for a performance, but they'll likely appreciate seeing the massive structure up close.
Manly Beach needs to be on every family’s list. After an awesome ferry ride, you’ll need to navigate the row of shops without acquiring too many souvenirs requested by your kids. There are bathroom facilities on the beach that can be used free of charge. There’s also a pretty awesome flea market, complete with wonderful food booths on the weekends.
While there’s a small zoo at Darling Harbour, our recommendation is to head to Taronga Zoo. You could hop in an Uber and cross the Harbour Bridge to get there, but that wouldn’t be any fun. Instead, take the ferry and then a cable car to reach the top of the mountainside the zoo is situated on. The zoo is definitely a full-day experience with some unique opportunities. Our children really enjoyed feeding giraffes. At a cost of about $15 USD per person, it was a reasonable upcharge for a once-in-a-lifetime sort of experience. Pro tip: There’s a pretty big change in elevation from the top of the zoo to the bottom. To avoid a lot of uphill climbing, hit the different animal exhibits in order from top to bottom.
Ticket prices are $42.30 AUD for adults and $24.30 AUD for children ages 4 to 15. However, family packages can save additional money. And, if your kids really like spending time with animals, an annual pass is generally cheaper than two days worth of tickets.
Don’t skip Bondi. Like Bridge Climb, some will say it’s too touristy, but it’s an iconic part of Sydney. You’ll be sad if you don’t snag at least a picture or two. My advice? Take the walk from Bronte Beach to Bondi (or the longer walk from Coogee), taking plenty of time for pictures along the way.
The market at The Rocks can be a fun place on the weekend to grab a snack and shop for souvenirs. While the pricing will be better at the markets near Chinatown, The Rocks, in the shadow of the Harbour Bridge, is a great place to burn a few hours outside shopping for that perfect keepsake.
Luna Park is a short ferry ride away from downtown and an excellent place to kill an afternoon in a vintage, Coney Island-style amusement park, complete with pinball machines from the 1960s and long, wooden slides with burlap bags.
When it’s time to shop for souvenirs, consider the markets adjacent to Chinatown. And visit the nighttime festival that takes place on Friday nights in Chinatown. There's plenty of eating and shopping!
Where to eat in Sydney
Mr. Wong is our absolute favorite restaurant in Sydney, and it is only a short walk from The Rocks. The wait staff had no issue customizing meal choices and service times for our hungry kids. Soup dumplings -- yum!
Spice Alley is another treat. Accessible via train and car, you’ll find over half a dozen authentic food stands outside under some tarps. It’s easy to grab sushi from one and soup dumplings from another to make your ideal meal. Did I mention we really enjoyed the soup dumplings in Sydney?
Exploring Port Douglas
If the Great Barrier Reef is something you’ve always dreamed of, Port Douglas is where you should go, if only for a few days. The coastal town reminded us a bit of Key West, without the public drinking and debauchery.
Qantas flies multiple times per day from Sydney to Cairns (CNS). Since Qantas is part of the Oneworld alliance, we were able to use American Airlines miles to fly round-trip. We found plenty of availability in coach for 10,000 miles one-way, but elected to splurge on business class in the widebody with lie-flat seats for 20,000 miles one-way. The flight lasted about three hours and included a full meal service.
We rented a car from Hertz (you’ll find most of the major car rental companies at Cairns Airport). The drive to Port Douglas takes about an hour and has a few picturesque spots to stop for a break. Just be aware that you’ll be driving on the opposite side of the road from the U.S., and the steering wheel will be on the opposite side as well. Traffic isn’t particularly hard to navigate, but it does take a bit of getting used to.
Where to stay
The Sheraton Grand Mirage Port Douglas is the popular choice for point redemptions. There’s also a Ramada resort, which pretty much sums up the mainstream points redemption options.
The Sheraton is a Category 5 in the Marriott Bonvoy program, which means you’ll need to redeem between 30,000 and 40,000 points per night. With Marriott's addition of peak and off-peak pricing, rates will vary in that range throughout the year. When the rates are 30 - 35k points, you can cash in a 35k award certificate. We were upgraded to a room that allowed swim-out access from our terrace, a real treat.
You can earn up to 100k bonus Marriott points via the program's right now, including:
- Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card -- Earn 125,000 bonus Marriott Bonvoy points after you use your new card to make $5,000 in purchases within the first three months. Plus, earn up to $200 in statement credits for eligible purchases at U.S. restaurants within the first six months of card membership. Offer ends 5/12/2021. Terms Apply.
- Marriott Bonvoy Bold™ Credit Card -- welcome offer of 50,000 points after $1,000 in spending in the first three months of account opening.
- Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card -- Earn 100,000 Bonus Points after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening.
- Marriott Bonvoy Business® American Express® Card -- Earn 100,000 Marriott Bonvoy bonus points after you use your new Card to make $5,000 in eligible purchases within the first 3 months of Card Membership. Plus, earn up to $150 back in statement credits on eligible purchases made on your new Card within the first 3 months of Card Membership. Offer ends 5/12/21. Terms apply.
Things to do near the Great Barrier Reef
The Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest are two of the main attractions you won’t want to miss.
Helicopter tours of the reef are readily available for between $200 and $600 USD per person. We chose GBR Helicopter Tours. They're located across the street from the Sheraton Mirage. The booking process was easy and the staff was friendly and engaging. Some helicopters hold a maximum of three passengers, so be sure to check that if you have a family of four or more. Our helicopter seated six, with one seat being a “middle” seat. This is definitely a window seat sort of experience. Thankfully the helicopter company doesn’t generally book that middle seat.
Snorkeling at the reef is another excursion families will enjoy, though it doesn’t come without some pitfalls. If you’re visiting during their warm season (North America’s winter) you’ll find plenty of jellyfish affectionately referred to as “stingers.” The tour companies supply wet suits that should prevent too much harm, but it’s an issue.
In their winter, the water temperatures are still somewhat reasonable. Cross your fingers for a sunny day, though. In those colder months, you’ll find the water significantly choppy. We booked on a traditional tour boat/trawler of sorts. We found out afterward there were speedboats available that might have better mitigated the roiling seas. There was one girl who ended up filling a few sickness bags on our 30-minute voyage to the reef. It was worth it for the unparalleled beauty of the reef. The colors of the coral and fish swimming among them are almost too incredible to believe.
We chose Calypso Reef Cruises, who are associated with GBR Helicopters. We received a small discount for booking both experiences with them. There are a number of different experiences. Snorkeling prices range from $195 AUD to $255.50 AUD for adults and $155 AUD to $185.50 AUD for children ages 4 to 14 years old.
Lastly, the local zoo has a few experiences you’re unlikely to find in Sydney, such as holding a koala bear. Prices at the Port Douglas Wildlife Habitat start at $37 AUD for adults and $18.50 for children ages 4 to 14 years old. They also offer a family package that will save a bit of money.
And, if you want the ultimate experience, choose a Private Wildlife Habitat tour. Pricing is $169 AUD for adults and $132 AUD for children. You'll get to spend half the day with one of the keepers. Make sure you ask for Indy, the head keeper. She'll make a day for your children they'll never forget.
During our entire trip we felt incredibly safe wherever we went. Crime isn’t a huge issue in either Sydney or Port Douglas. Sydney is a big city that just doesn’t feel that way. With the addition of a light rail line through the heart of the business and shopping district, it’s only getting easier to navigate using public transportation.
Between museums, beaches, zoos, gardens and ferries, Sydney will captivate the minds of children for days and days. If you’re the rare family that can’t find enough to do in Sydney, the nearby Blue Mountains are a great, easy escape. With English spoken everywhere and a friendly currency conversion rate, families from the U.S. will find a warm welcome while they explore one of the greatest destinations we’ve ever visited.
For more Australia trip-planning advice, see these stories:
- Visiting Australia: Is Sydney or Melbourne better?
- How and when to get a visa to visit Australia
- 8 Australian islands you probably haven't heard of but need to visit
- Top wildlife experiences in Australia for the whole family