Tracking down an Australian cross-country train trip that will fit your budget

Q: I will be visiting Australia in October and would like to know if there are any cross-country trains there and if tickets for them can be bought in the United States.

A: Australia is home to some of the most interesting train trips in the world, taking travelers through a continent of vast contrasts along thousands of miles of track.


Many long-distance trains offer first-class, deluxe and economy-class compartments, sleeping berths and reclining seats. Some have entertainment cars, in which a piano, video games and even slot machines are provided. And the Queenslander, which goes from Brisbane to Cairns, even has a disco car called Club Loco offering dance music.

For Americans traveling to Australia, there are a variety of multi-trip passes available, which must be bought in the United States. Tickets for single trips can be bought before leaving, too.


The Austrailpass gives unlimited first-class and economy travel anywhere on the Australian rail network, including electric metropolitan trains. Prices range from $339 in economy for 14 days ($565 in first class) to $877 in economy for 90 days ($1,377 in first class).

The Austrail Flexi-Pass is good for eight days' rail travel within a period of 60 days for $250 in economy and $413 in first class or 15 days within 90 days for $370 in economy and $585 in first.

The Kangaroo Road 'n' Rail Pass is good for unlimited first-class and economy travel anywhere on the Australian rail network plus selected bus travel with Australian Coachlines (one class only). Passes run from $511 in economy for 14 days ($811 in first class) to $897 in economy for 28 days ($1,193 in first class).

All tickets can be ordered through Rail Australia, ATS Tours, 100 N. First St., Suite 301, Burbank, Calif. 91502; call (800) 423-2880 or (818) 841-1030. The agency can also arrange hotel packages.

These are some of the train trips:

* The Indian Pacific from Sydney to Adelaide to Perth, a 65-hour journey that runs every Monday and Thursday (Tuesday and Friday in Adelaide) through most of the year.

* The Ghan, from Adelaide to Alice Springs, is a 22-hour trip that runs every Thursday all year and every Monday from April to January. Named after Afghan traders whose camel trains were once the only link between Australia's interior and Adelaide, the 908-mile journey takes you to the heart of the outback.

* The Queenslander goes every Sunday from Brisbane to Cairns in 32 hours, a 1,044-mile journey that stops after 19 hours at Proserpine, gateway to the Great Barrier Reef.


Q: We are interested in renting a houseboat in the Florida Keys this winter. Can you give me names of rental agencies?

A: Three companies in the Key Largo area would probably provide what you are looking for.

* Coral Bay Houseboat Rentals, P.O. Box 1414, Islamorada, Fla. 33036, (305) 664-3111, is at mile marker 81.5 at the Coral Bay Marina on the bay side of Islamorada. Boats are restricted to a cruising radius of around 25 miles (Key Largo to the north and Long Key to the south). The 34-by-12-foot houseboats, which sleep six, have a dining booth with a couch and table -- each converts into a double bed -- a stateroom with a closet, a bathroom with a shower and a hand-pumped toilet. A week's rental is $850; three weekdays are $450 and a three-day weekend (either Friday to Sunday or Saturday to Monday) is $500. Rates apply all year.

* Smilin' Island Houseboat Rentals, P.O. 3003, Key Largo, Fla. 33037, (305) 451-1930, is at mile marker 99.5 on the bay side at Key Largo. The boats come in two sizes, 42 feet and 52 feet. The 52-footer sleeps 10 and has central air-conditioning, television and a VCR, a microwave oven and an 11-foot Boston Whaler runabout. Rates from Sept. 15 to Dec. 15 are $850 for a ZTC three-night weekend, $950 for four nights at midweek and $1,450 for seven nights. From Dec. 15 to May 15 rates go up by $200.

The rate for the 52-footer does not include fuel, which is about $100 a week. The 52-footer can be docked only at its home marina or anchored in Florida Bay. Cruising is restricted to an area roughly within the southern boundary of the Everglades National Park.

The 42-footer sleeps six, and overnight docking at nearby marinas is permitted. From Sept. 15 to Dec. 15, rates, which include fuel, are $600 for a three-night weekend, $700 for four midweek nights and $1,000 for seven nights. From Dec. 15 to May 15, rates go up by $200.


* Houseboat Vacations of the Florida Keys, P.O. Box 1202, Islamorada, Fla. 33036, (305) 664-4009, is at mile marker 85.9 on the bay side. Houseboats are available at 40 feet, 42 feet, 45 feet and 46 feet, and cruising is permitted within 40 miles of the marina. Boats are permitted to dock at any of the local marinas or to anchor in the bay. Rentals (two-day minimum) range from $350 to $550 depending on the size of the boat. Weekly rates are from $860 to $1,550.