Dongas, silver bullets, and ATCOs are common kinds of cheap outback accommodation.
Most people have never heard of them.
Well, we’re going to tell you all about these and other little known outback accommodation secrets below.
First up, we need to tell you something important: It’s about expectations.
Many of the places you can visit in the outback are a long, long way from major cities and supply chains.
Therefore, the quality and style of accommodation may be lower than you’re accustomed to and you may pay a little more.
What’s more, it can be hellishly difficult to keep red dirt, insects and even frogs out of rooms.
Our advice: chill out.
You won’t die from some red dirt on the bench tops or the occasional ant wandering across the floor. And no one has ever died because there was a frog in the toilet!
We couldn’t possible write a page like this without telling you our number one secret for saving money on outback accommodation: CAMPING.
If you visit the outback and don’t camp, you’re missing out on seeing the place exactly as locals do.
In fact, we’ll go so far to say that you’re really not experiencing the outback as it’s meant to be experienced.
Outback Australia is full of incredible campsites – many of which are free or a nominal fee in national parks. In national parks, you’ll often find great amenities and free gas BBQs are included as part of your fee (between $3-$10).
Why is camping so good here?
There’s just so many reasons:
- a million more stars than you’ll ever seen before
- freedom and peace
- world’s best sunrises and sunsets
- the sights, smells and sounds of the bush
Apart from being the cheapest form of outback accommodation, camping also makes you slow down.
It takes you back to the bare essentials and in many ways, lets you to relate to yourself, your family or friends and gain an intimate knowledge of landscape you’re in.
We say: give camping a go. It’s addictive and campers really are happier people!
Dongas, ATCOs and Silver Bullets
We promised to reveal this outback accommodation ‘secret’ and here it is.
Dongas, ATCOs and silver bullets are forms of transportable accommodation that you’ll find all over the outback.
Just like swags and outback pubs, dongas, ATCOs and silver bullets are an essential part of life for those of us who live and work here.
Oddly, few travel guides seem to mention these all-pervasive pieces of outback accommodation, let alone understand how important they are to those of us who live here!
So we’ll explain.
Dongas, ATCOs and Silver Bullets are outback accommodation secrets which are frequently set up in remote areas as accommodation for workers in Aboriginal communities, mining camps and work camps.
This is because they’re cheaper than building houses in these locations. Therefore, many of us who live and work here stay in these pre-fab, movable houses quite a lot.
However, you’ll also find them in roadhouses along the Stuart Highway and in places like Marree and William Creek masquerading as ‘motel rooms’.
Whilst all dongas, ATCOs and Silver Bullets have bedrooms, sometimes you’ll find that they don’t have bathrooms (like dongas I’ve stayed in at Old Andado and Top Springs Roadhouse).
Some have kitchenettes and dining rooms. Some are like houses, and have more than one bedroom and an entire laundry.
They are generally cheap (think bunkhouse style) accommodation: anywhere from $30 – $100 per night.
Keep in mind that $100 per night dongas are big enough for 4 people and come with a bathroom and kitchen. Occasionally, you find they’re a little dirty, but thankfully, they’re easy to clean and a sweep out is all that’s needed.
Cheap Hotel/Motel Rooms
Outside of cities in Australia, you really need to look for motels or pubs to stay in – as you won’t find many ‘cheap’ hotels in the outback.
So you’re left with pubs or motels, which are popular kinds of outback accommodation. Here’s a few things you really need to be aware of before you book.
Generally, motels will have at least a double or twin bed, and a bathroom and toilet. The quality varies widely.
Check reviews carefully before you go. Some places are to be avoided at all costs! TripAdvisor is a GREAT place to check reviews.
Motel rooms in the outback (especially at roadhouses) are much more expensive than those in cities.
On average, you’ll pay $95 AUD and upwards per night (twin share or double).
The quality varies widely, which is why we recommend that you read those reviews very carefully.
If you want a ‘real’ outback experience, then you should spend at least one night in an outback pub.
Like camping in a swag, staying in an outback pub is something you really should try.
Rooms in pubs vary widely: some have beds only and you need to share the bathroom.
They can vary from very clean and fresh, to downright grotty with awful beds, so again read reviews carefully. You’ll find that pub accommodation starts at around $50 per night.
Try these links to find outback motel and pub rooms and to get some great last minute deals:
- Hotels Combined. Searches all the best travel sites at once and finds the cheapest price
- Hotwire. A great site for finding 3 and 4 star hotel rooms at huge discounts the last minute
- Last Minute.com. We use this one all the time. It’s got the best Australian coverage
- Wotif. Another one we use to find cheap motel and hotel rooms Australia wide
- Check our reviews of budget accommodation in Alice Springs, Ayers Rock and Coober Pedy
When we’re not camping, they are our number one outback accommodation secret.
We love them because we can cook our own meals AND they have a bathroom. Most of them have TVs/DVD players, and come complete with linen.
Just about every outback town in Australia has at least one caravan park; for example, even tiny Ti Tree, 300 km north of Alice Springs on the Stuart Highway, has a caravan (RV) park, and this is exactly where you’ll find cabins and onsite-vans.
Don’t be fooled: you DON’T need to own a caravan or an RV to stay in one of these as most have self-contained cabins or on-site caravans to rent.
Self-contained cabins have a bathroom and kitchen and are very much like a caravan/RV to stay in. They just don’t have wheels!
On-site caravans are just that: caravans that are permanently parked on site in a caravan park. PLEASE NOTE: they may or may not have a bathroom inside them.
On-site vans are usually cheaper than a cabin, and about half or one third the price of a motel.
To find out more:
- Caravan Parks Online. A complete booking service
- Go See Australia Not only a booking service but an online caravan & RV community
Backpacker’s hostels are synonymous with budget accommodation around the world.
However, we will state this right now: hostels are not for everyone.
After a number of bad experiences in hostel dorms, I (Amanda) am extremely fussy about the kind of hostel I will stay in.
If it looks like a grungy party pad, I won’t stay there. Call me boring, call me grumpy, but I’m not giving up my sleep for anyone!
However, staying in private rooms in hostels has been fabulous for us.
What we can say is that in Outback Australia -especially in Alice Springs- you’ll find some of the best backpacker’s accommodation you could ever want to stay in.
One of the hostels in Alice is so good, it’s a renowned local hangout for after work drinks!
Sites for booking a hostel include:
- Hostelbookers. The best known no service charge or booking fees
- Hostelworld. Over 25,000 Hostels in more than 180 Countries
- YHA Australia. Well known Australian backpackers and hostels
Our reviews: see our Alice Springs, Ayers Rock and Coober Pedy budget accommodation pages.
The housesitting scene in Alice Springs is HUGE.
It’s also one of the least-known ways of getting free accommodation in Central Australia in return for looking after someone’s house and pets for them.
If you’re heading to Alice Springs and want to stay one or more weeks, then housesitting is a very, very real option for you. We’ve used house-sitters ourselves and so have many of our friends.
The drawback is that Alice locals use their social networks and don’t advertise.
However, if you’re interested, first try:
- the Alice Springs Housesitting Facebook group (this is a closed Facebook Group, and you’ll have to join, but it is THE BEST place to find housesitting opportunities)
- AFTER contacting the Facbeok group above, email us. We have a wide network of friends and contacts who often require house-sitters and who don’t advertise.
Here are some other places you might try:
We haven’t tried it ourselves, but we’ve heard other folk say it’s a great way to meet locals, and really get to know the place in which you’re staying.
Accommodation might be a room, or a bed or just a place on the floor. However, the advantage is that you not only save on accommodation, but you meet local people who really know the place you’re staying in.
A quick look at the Couchsurfing website, and we can see that Alice Springs and Darwin are VERY popular destinations for Couchsurfers.
Who knows, maybe you’ll see our spare room there one day as well.
- Check our destination pages which all have outback accommodation reviews from our own experiences
- Always try to negotiate a price or ask for a discount, no matter where you’re staying. If you don’t ask, then you won’t get it!
- You can get some incredible off-season discounts on outback accommodation if you’re travelling in the outback over summer
We’d really appreciate your feedback and experiences with outback accommodation. Please use the form below and let us know what kinds of accommodation you’ve tried and what your experiences have been like.