Situated within the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, in Central Australia, Uluru, (or Ayres Rock as it was formerly known) is one of this country’s most outstanding and recognisable landmarks. As such, it’s also a key bucket list ranker for many global travellers, renowned for both its geological and indigenous importance. Not usually one for visiting the most touristy and iconic attractions in a country, I didn't think I would ever visit Uluru during my time here in Australia; 1. because I thought it would be too expensive and 2. because it had been widely downplayed to me as “just a big rock”! Who, after all wants to spend hundreds of dollars going to see a lump of stone in the desert?!
Nothing however, could have been further from the truth; a fact I gladly got to discover for myself when a fortunate encounter provided me with an opportunity to take a budget road trip up though Central Australia including to this incredibly significant cultural and natural wonder. The sheer magnitude and awe-inspiring quality of the whole Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park cannot be downplayed. It really is a world wonder, an epic visual spectacle, a vivid colour display by nature, which has to be seen to be believed. I really do count my time at Uluru as one of the most prominent highlights of my travels in Australia and I would therefore strongly urge anyone visiting this country to try and make the pilgrimage there too.
For it is something of a pilgrimage, a trip to Uluru; not least because it’s thousands of km from anything! Not only does this mean it takes time to get there, but it CAN also mean it is very costly (both the act of getting there and the actual being there too.) If however, like me, you’re putting off visiting Uluru partly because of finances, please don’t let this hold you back. My trip there absolutely highlighted that visiting this remote and special site does not have to cost the earth. As such, here is my complete guide on how to visit Uluru cheaply.
Basic Uluru Info
The rock of Uluru itself is situated within a National Park called Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park – a dual UNESCO World Heritage Site. The park is massive at 1,325 square km and houses both the famous Uluru rock, as well as the less famous, but equally beautiful Kata Tjuta rock formations, formerly known as the Olgas.
The Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is at the heart of Australia’s Red Centre in the Northern Territory. The nearest major settlement is the town of Alice Springs, which is around 450km from Uluru. You can fly to and stay at Alice Springs, visiting Uluru from there, normally via an organised tour or a self-drive excursion. The other option is to travel to and stay at Yulara instead – a purpose built tourist settlement only 8km from the entrance to the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Note: You cannot stay within the park itself and there are no legal free camps nearby.
Passes to the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park cost $25 for anyone over the age of 16. They are valid for 3 consecutive days. You cannot enter the park without them, so this is an unavoidable cost.
My Budget Pick: Base yourself at Yulara, rather than Alice Springs – you’ll have more independent, budget options of seeing Uluru from Yulara and you’ll also be able to get better value for money from your park pass.
When To Visit Uluru Cheaply
High season for visiting Uluru, like most of the Northern Territory, is between May and September, during this time the prices of accommodation and other services may be slightly higher. The reason for this is the weather; during the low season of November – March it can be unbearably hot, often getting to over 40 degrees. This can certainly make visiting Uluru an exhausting business meaning prices are slightly cheaper. Being located within an arid climate zone, Uluru receives very little rainfall at anytime of the year.
My Budget Pick: Visit Uluru during the shoulder months of Apr/May or Sept/Oct – often you won’t pay high season prices during this time, but the weather will still allow you to see and do everything you need. Do still be aware of cold morning and nights at this time however and pack suitable clothing.
How to Get to Uluru Cheaply
It is possible to get the Ghan train to Alice Springs, but it is an expensive mode of transport, so has not been covered in this budget guide.
You can also get a Greyhound coach to Alice Springs from Darwin, Cairns or Adelaide, but again this isn’t an option I consider budget enough to cover in this guide. The price of the greyhound bus alone from Adelaide to Alice to $245 and takes 19 hours. WOAH!
From Alice Springs you can either take an organised tour (expensive at around $350 for a basic 2/3 day tour) or do a self-drive excursion to Uluru. In my opinion however, you’ll save yourself time and money by simply going direct to Yulara and hiring a car there if you need.
My Budget Pick: As always, independent travel comes out as the most cost-effective method of travel. Essentially this means flying or driving to Yulara are the best answers to the question of how to visit Uluru cheaply.
Flying Cheaply to Uluru
You can fly to Alice Springs, but as I said I recommend going direct to Yulara instead – flights straight there actually seem to be cheaper too.
Flights to Yulara (AYQ) depart directly from Melbourne and Sydney – so if you do want to fly to Uluru, these will be your cheapest points of departure. (You can fly from other Australian cities too, like Brisbane or Adelaide, but these will be via Sydney or Melbourne and therefore more expensive.)
The cheapest airline to fly with is probably Jetstar, as a budget airline they’re your best bet for cheap fares, or at least a good place to start (Qantas and Virgin also fly the route).
My Budget Pick: Keep flight costs as low as possible by only taking carry-on luggage, not reserving seats and using a flight search website like Skyscanner or Webjet to check prices across a range of dates and airlines. If you’re flexible, prices can be as low as $116 one way from Sydney (3.5 hrs) and $106 from Melbourne (3 hrs).
Driving Cheaply to Uluru
This is the way I got to Yulara as it can be surprisingly cheap if you’re happy to rough it.
You can hire cars to self-drive to Uluru in any Australian city and they needn’t be 4wd, which can save you money. I recommend checking out Hertz Australia, who often run good promotions on shorter rentals and have offices in most of the major towns you’re likely to be setting off from.
Even cheaper than hiring is relocating and you might be able to score one of these deals from either Darwin, Adelaide or Alice Springs which will allow you to visit Uluru.
Cheaper than relocating even is finding someone else with a car! Many backpackers and Australians will be driving to visit Uluru all year round, but particularly during high season. Use websites like gumtree, couchsurfing or coseats to find other people going that way and looking for passengers to share fuel costs. This is more common than you think and is how I ended up exploring Fraser Island in Queensland, so it’s definitely possible! Finding somebody with a vehicle already will save you any hire costs and you’ll only have to worry about fuel expenses which will be so much cheaper if shared too!
If you do drive to Uluru then it’s good to know that free roadside camps litter the Stuart Highway (the main road between Adelaide and Darwin) so if you have a tent, van or car with a bed you can easily stay for free here.
Fuel, like all commodities in the Outback, is expensive due to lack of competition and the costs of transporting anything there. Save yourself money on fuel by filling up as much as you can in big towns like Darwin, Adelaide or Alice Springs. If possible, also carry jerry cans full of cheaper fuel and just add these to your tank instead of stopping at gas stations once you hit the Outback. This is especially true the nearer you get to Uluru, where fuel prices rocket! (normally to over $2.20 p/litre – eek!)
My Budget Pick: Driving to Uluru will give you more independence and will also save you money once you start exploring the park. Ride sharing with other travellers going there is the way to keep things uber-cheap. Grab a free map from a tourism office in South Australia or Northern Territory and rough it at the marked free camps. Take Jerry cans full of cheap fuel.
Staying Cheaply at Uluru
As I said before, you cannot stay within the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park itself. The nearest free camp is at Curtis Springs Station, 100km away. You can stay here, but you’ll probably spend more in fuel driving to Uluru and back than you would staying at Yulara. Also, if you only visit Uluru for one day, you are not really getting value for money out of your park pass.
At Yulara, the cheapest place to stay is Ayres Rock Campground. Here there are cabins for rent as well as places to pitch tents and park campervans that are both powered and unpowered. There is also a camp kitchen, laundry facility, shower block, swimming pool and wifi service.
In Alice Springs, I really recommend staying at Alice’s Secret Travellers Inn. You can’t camp here, but it is a gorgeous little hostel, near the centre of town with free parking and some reasonably priced dorms and doubles. There is a nice pool, garden, kitchen, BBQ area and wifi.
My Budget Pick: Stay at Ayres Rock Campground as it's only 8km to the park entrance and I really enjoyed the pleasant grounds and relaxed, clean vibe of the place. They have lots of free info about the park too. Non-powered sites are as cheap as $36 in low season for 1-2 people. That’s a bargain for the most popular tourist site in the whole country!
Eating Cheaply at Uluru
Like all commodities, food in the outback is more expensive than elsewhere in Australia – and that’s saying something! As such, try to bring as much food into the Outback as you can, although be mindful of crossing state borders – there are restrictions in place regarding fresh food. Packing picnic food into an esky (cool box) or if you’re lucky, a fridge, and bringing it in a vehicle will be a great way to save money. You can then use the camp kitchen at Ayres Rock Campground to prepare food.
If you run out of supplies there is an IGA supermarket at Yulara. There are also 2 IGA supermarkets and a Coles Supermarket at Alice Springs, so stock up here if you’re passing! ATMs are available in both destinations if you need cash.
My Budget Pick: It’s the old adage of picnic and cook for yourself! Bringing cooked food across state borders is no problem, so cook up one side and then carry it across!
Cheap Transport Yulara-Uluru
This is where driving to Yulara really comes into its own budget-wise, because you already have a set of wheels with which to go and see Uluru itself. If you’ve brought your own car, perfect – just drive to the park entrance, buy your tickets and away you go.
If you’ve flown to Yulara, then hiring your own car is an option. This will keep prices low but still give you independence. Hertz Australia rentals are available at Yulara airport, so you can pick up on arrival. It’s likely to cost you around $300 for 3 days.
The third option is to take an organised trip or transport service. From Yulara there are regular shuttle services that can ferry you to Uluru for a walk and /or sunrise for around $70.
My Budget Pick: If you didn’t drive to Yulara, the book yourself a hire car from Yulara airport in advance. This way you will guarantee yourself a better deal. Remember a 4wd is not necessary, so get the cheapest model available and try to team up with others to keep prices low.
Cheap Activities at Uluru
For starters, there are plenty of walks within the park, all free. The best 2 are the Base Walk around Uluru itself and the Valley of the Winds Walk around Kata-Tjuta.
The Cultural Centre within the park is also free to enter and an excellent insight into the natural and cultural significance of this giant monolith. You can easily spend a good few hours here.
Sunset watching is also free! There at least 4 designated sunset/sunrise viewing spots within the park too, with specially raised platforms for better angles. Make sure you get up early at least one day to see the colours of the day coming to life over Uluru and don’t forget your camera.
There are also a number of free talks and guided walks available daily within the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. For more details ask the reception staff at the Ayres Rock Campground – they have all the info!
My Budget Pick: Inside Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park there are enough free activities to keep you amused for days. Keep costs low and don’t pay for anything, as you really don’t have to enjoy Uluru. Just remember to take water, natural sunscreen and a hat or sarong (as always!) wherever you go!
How Long to Spend Visiting Uluru
Much as Uluru is an amazing thing to see and experience, being in and around it is not super cheap, so your time here will have to be limited if you don’t want to spend too much. On top of this, it’s important to remember that your Park Pass is only valid for 3 days. As such I recommend spending 3 days and 2 nights at Uluru, this will give you plenty of time to see most things the park has to offer at a reasonable pace.
Therefore the Answer of How to Visit Uluru Cheaply is….
To drive to Yulara and stay at Ayres Rock Campground enjoying all the free activities to do in the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park for 3 days during the shoulder season of Apr/May or Sept/Oct! Try and share a car with others, load up on cheap fuel where you can, camp and picnic along the way and don’t take tours!