Brittany has lived in Sydney since 2012 and has also worked for Transport for NSW. She considers herself an expert on Sydney tourism.
When I travel, I typically enjoy doing so without the worry (and additional cost) of driving or renting a car. Sometimes it’s nicer to just walk or take a short train/bus ride to your destination without needing to navigate traffic and unfamiliar roads, learn driving rules, and try to find parking.
Thankfully, Sydney is a very public-transport-friendly city; in fact, most Sydneysiders prefer public transportation over driving!
This article goes over the various modes of transportation in Sydney, their convenience and cost, and all information necessary for visitors who are wondering how to get around Sydney without a car.
Walking in Sydney
You can get to many places around Sydney, particularly within the CBD (central business district/downtown), by walking. In fact, I’d recommend walking if you’re staying within the CBD area; though there are buses and trains, it sometimes easier and faster to walk than waiting in traffic on a bus, or paying for a train ticket.
If you’re in the CBD, it’s a relatively short walk around the whole area; from the start of the CBD (we’ll say Central Train Station) to the edge (Circular Quay, where the Opera House is located), it’s about a 30-40 minute walk. You can easily walk to other points of interest, including the Harbour Bridge, Darling Harbour, the Queen Victorian Building, and more.
Walking from the city to different suburbs is a bit harder. Though most of Sydney is flat (so very few uphill walks), the city is spread out very far. For example, while getting from the CBD to the nearby suburb of Bondi is only about a 20-30 minute bus ride, it’s a nearly two-hour walk. Not really impossible, but not recommend if you’ve travelled to Sydney during its extremely hot and humid summers!
Opal cards are the ticketing system within Sydney, and you can use them for trains, buses, ferry and light rail. These reloadable cards allow you to add a value of money for travel, which is then deducted from your card, depending on how far your journey was. Opal cards are only for use within Sydney and its surrounding suburbs; you cannot use the cards in other states in Australia (most cities have their own similar ticketing system, i.e. Melbourne’s “myki” card).
The card itself is free, but the minimum top-up value is $5. The card caps off each day after $16.30 dollars of travel (meaning you can have unlimited travel after spending $16.30), or after spending $50 within a week (Monday–Sunday). Opal rewards with a $2 discount for transfers (catching another mode of transport within 60 minutes). Weekends and public holidays are capped off at $8.15 or the entire day, which makes it a great day for a cheap ferry ride!
I recommend checking the Transport NSW fare page, as the fares change without notice.
Opal Cards are available for adults, but there’s also a child card for children 16 and under, with reduced (half-price) fares. There are also reduced fare cards for seniors/pensioners and students, but you must be an Australian resident in order to be eligible for these cards (so unfortunately, you cannot purchase one of these cards as a visitor to Sydney).
Opal cards can be purchased online (but must be posted to an Australian address), at the Sydney Airport, at train stations, Woolworths, Coles, 7-11, and most other convenient and grocery stores. You can also add more value to your card at all the above locations, as well as via the internet and the Opal app.
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I recommend downloading the free Opal Travel app on your Android or iOS device; not only can you keep track of your card’s value, but you can also ensure that you’ve tapped off correctly, see your travel history, top-up your card’s value, and use the Trip Planner to plan your trip on bus, train, light rail or ferry.
Taking the Train in Sydney
Sydney has a wide-spread train system, which connects the city and the majority of its surrounding suburbs. Sydney Trains are owned and operated by the State government (specifically Transport for New South Wales) and are accessible by buying tickets at a station or using an Opal card.
Most major suburbs within Sydney have their own train station, and trains typically operate every 5-15 minutes (frequency varies depending on peak time and the station’s demand), until 12am each day. After 1am all train stations are closed for the evening until morning, but you can still get around after dark with NightRide bus services, which operate in lieu of trains between midnight and 4:30 am.
Central Station (located in the CBD between Haymarket and Surry Hills) is the main train hub in Sydney; going there allows you to transfer to any of the nine train lines in the network. Each line covers a specific area of Sydney (i.e. the T2 line covers Inner West & Leppington area, which allows passengers to catch trains from the CBD City Circle, through to suburbs heading towards Parramatta, or Leppington).
Please be aware that there’s an additional surcharge if going by train to Sydney Airport; on top of the normal ticket cost, there’s an airport station access fee of $14.30 (or $12.80 for children).
In general, the train system is extremely convenient in Sydney. You can reach most areas by train, and stations are spread out quite well throughout the city so you can reach them either by walking or a short bus ride. Trains are also the fastest form of communication in the article, compared with buses, ferry and light rail. Thanks to the train system, you can travel in and out of the city with ease, and get from point A to point B relatively quickly and on time.
Sydney’s train system is also fairly reliable, with delays generally only happening during peak times and stations only being closed on weekends (for station maintenance- track work- where buses will replace trains). Stations in the CBD do get extremely crowded during peak times on weekdays (7-9:30am and 4-6:30pm), so I’d say avoid going into the city via train during these times, if possible.
I recommend using the official Transport for NSW site or the Opal Travel app (or even Google Maps) to plot your train journeys, as all of these methods will give you clear and easy directions on how to get to the station, find your platform, and which stop to get off at.
The Bus System in Sydney
Sydney also has a very wide-spread bus system which allows passengers to travel around the city, as well as to inner suburbs. All of the buses in Sydney are equipped with the Opal card readers, but some buses outside of the CBD allow passengers to pay for cash (paper) tickets for one-way journeys.
There are several bus hubs within Sydney, including one outside of Central Station called Railway Square (located on the corner of George and Lee Street), which has buses going to the city, eastern suburbs, and inner west.
Regular city buses typically run every 15-30 minutes during peak time, with frequency reducing to every 30 minutes or every hour during off-peak or on Sunday/Public Holidays.
There are some places accessible only by bus; for example, Bondi and Coogee Beach can only be reached by bus (there’s no train station in either Bondi or Coogee).
Buses in Sydney are hit-and-miss; like most cities, the buses tend to run late and sometimes early, so timetables can be quite useless. However, when you finally do get on a bus, you can reach your destination fairly fast, and depending on where you’re located/where you’re travelling to, it might sometimes be more convenient to use a bus rather than a train. Every suburb has at least one bus line, with many stops spread out on the streets for easy access.
The downside to buses in Sydney, besides the unreliable timetable, is that they tend to crowd during peak times and seats fill quickly. You might find yourself standing in a crowded bus if you travel during morning and evening commute, and there doesn’t tend to be good ventilation on the buses, either. You can have a very uncomfortable standing journey on a bus for several stops if you end up on a crowded one.
Again, I recommend downloading and using the Opal Travel app or Google Maps, as both will give you real-time, GPS-based updates on your bus’ estimated departure and arrival time. You can even track your bus on these apps and watch as it approaches your stop. Don’t forget to flag down your bus when it arrives, and ring the buzzer when you’ve reached your stop. Buses require you to tap when you get on and tap off when you depart using your Opal card.
Taking the Ferry in Sydney
Ferries in Sydney aren’t a main mode of transportation, but you’ll still want to hop on one if you’re looking for the most convenient way to get to Manly Beach or Taronga Zoo, for example.
There are eight Ferry routes in Sydney; in addition to the ones mentioned above, there’s also ferries going to Parramatta (along the Parramatta River), Neutral Bay, Mosman Bay, Double Bay, Cross Harbour, and Cockatoo Harbour.
The main hub for ferries is Circular Quay, where you can catch ferries going to any of the above destinations.
I highly recommend using the ferry to go to Manly beach; it’s an iconic ferry journey that’s great for tourists and city-dwellers alike. It offers amazing views of the water, and a 30-minute trip from the city to the beach (which would take over an hour via multiple buses, otherwise).
Most ferries run every half hour, but also stop operating by 9pm. Again, I recommend looking up the timetable on an app before heading out, and arrive to the ferry terminal at least 20 minutes before departing (particularly on Sunday, with the $2.70 Opal cap, the ferries are VERY busy and crowded), so you can get a good seat! It’s also wise to arrive early, because ferries leave strictly at their set departure time, and you’ll also be refused entry if the ferry reaches capacity before you can board.
Sydney's Light Rail
Sydney’s light rail network operates within the city and surrounding suburbs, and is actually still under construction, with a second line to connect the CBD and the South East suburbs (Randwick and Kingsford) coming in 2020. The light rail operates above ground and is similar to a tram, but travels faster than buses.
There’s only one light rail line currently, which stops at 23 stations through the CBD through to Dulwich Hill. The light rail stops to several points of interest in the CBD, including Darling Harbour, The Star casino, Pyrmont Bay, the Fish Market, and the Exhibition Centre.
The light rail runs every 10–15 minutes, depending on the time of day, and the last trip operates at 11pm on weeknights (12am on Friday and Saturday).
The light rail is probably most convenient for travelling within the city to places like Darling Harbour or the Star, but most other destinations can likely be reached easier/quicker by using a bus or train. If you’re staying or visiting one of the suburbs along the light rail line, search on the Opal Travel app or Google Maps to see if it’s recommended to use the light rail or another mode of transportation.
Finally, you can definitely get around Sydney using Uber or taxis. Uber is the main ride-sharing service in Sydney, but there’s also Shebah (a service with all female drivers), Taxify, and Ola. Uber is the most widespread of all ride-sharing services; you can typically book a driver within minutes during most areas in the city. Lyft does not currently operate in Australia.
Uber journeys are fairly affordable within Sydney, but public transport is always cheaper. Taking an Uber vs. public transport really comes down to convenience, though; you get door-to-door service and will get to your destination faster than waiting for a bus, and then walking from the stop to your destination.
An Uber journey starts off at $9 (this is the minimum cost regardless of how far you travel) and then costs an additional $1.45 per kilometre travelled.
As mentioned above in the train section, I highly recommend if travelling to the airport with a party of two or more to book an Uber, as you avoid each paying the airport access fee, have the convenience of being able to put your luggage in the boot of the car, and don’t have to carry your bags to the train station. It’s also a lot quicker than walking to the station, waiting for, and travelling on the train. To take an Uber from the CBD to the airport it costs roughly $40 for UberX, compared to $17.70 per person with the train. Factor in the convenience of Uber, and it’s well worth the additional $4.60 for two people to take an Uber, and obviously much cheaper if you’re travelling with 3 or 4 people.
You can still catch a regular taxi in Sydney, if you flag one down on the street, or spot one parked at a taxi stand. Taxis are generally more expensive than Uber, though; with a base fare of $3.60 and a $2.19 charge per kilometre (this increases to $2.63 at night). There’s no minimum fare for taxis, however, so if you’re travelling a short distance that isn’t worth a $10 Uber trip (i.e. a few blocks that you can’t/don’t want to walk), you might be better off hailing a taxi, rather than booking an Uber.
Personally, I love using Uber both as a regular part of my weekly travel and as a traveller when visiting other cities. In a typical week, I’ll take 2-3 Uber journeys in lieu of my regular commute; if the bus is running too late, if the timetable is inconvenient and I want to get somewhere faster, or if my destination requires too many transfers (having to transfer to more than 2 buses or trains).
I hope I’ve covered all you need to know about getting around Sydney without a car. Whether it’s via bus, train, ferry, light rail, or Uber, there’s lots of ways to travel in Sydney without having to drive yourself, so grab an Opal card or download the Uber app and get going. If you have any questions, feel free to ask me in the comments section below.
Questions & Answers
Question: Is there an additional fee leaving the airport on the train?
Answer: There is a Station Access fee of $14.87 for taking the train from the airport. If you can catch a bus instead, there's no fee. Even Uber/Ola is cheaper from the airport if travelling with more than one person.
© 2019 Brittany Brown