The Australian east coast trip from Sydney to Cairns is the most popular route for travellers heading to the country. It’s a backpacker’s dream with stunning beaches, great cities, diverse landscapes and endless activities. Australia is known to be an expensive country to visit. However I will show you how you can stretch your dollars on this trip. Here is the ultimate guide to our East Coast Australia Road Trip.
Currency Info: In October 2019, the exchange of the Australian Dollar is around:
- Canadian Dollar: $0.90 AUD to $1 CAD
- US Dollar: $0.68 AUD to $1 USD
- Euro: $0.62 AUD to 1 EUR
You will find below our route!
We start at the end of our trip as we flew back to Sydney from our final destination, Cairns. As we booked last minute and right after state borders opened during the COVID-19 pandemic (Jun 2021), domestic flights were not operating at full capacity, we paid a premium ($252 AUD) for our Qantas flight. Not to mention we could only get a flight that had a layover in Brisbane, making the journey a full day rather than a 3 hour flight. Normal prices see flights from the two cities average around $100 AUD.
To book the flight, I use Skyscanner. They price check with over 1,200 travel companies, and usually give the best prices. They also have Price Alerts where they can notify you as soon as fares change on the flight you’re looking at.
Food & Drinks
Eating out in Australia can get quite expensive. Especially when you get out of the bigger cities, there are less cheap options.
Most of our meals were our own cooking. We would usually go to the grocery store, buy food on sale (we were able to buy a really good chocolate cake for $1.30!) and cook in our Airbnb, hostel or van. We cooked easy dishes like hot dogs, soup, chicken wrap, spam fried rice, instant noodles, mac n cheese.
Some days, we were able to eat some delicious dishes at restaurants such as:
- Avocado toast and an egg sando (sandwich) at Folk Byron Bay $38.50 AUD
- Spiced Ground Lamb and a Mixed Dip platter at Mado Turkish Restaurant in Brisbane $52.80 AUD
- Seafood platter and Enchiladas at Mika Airlie Bbq & Bar in Airlie Beach $42 AUD
- Karaage Chicken Rice Bowl at Goong Japanese Restaurant in Cairns $13 AUD
From the Sydney to Brisbane, we rented a car from Europcar for 5 days for a total of $119.56 AUD. I also chose the pick up point in Sydney and drop off in Brisbane rather than their respective airports, making it a lot more convenient to get around the city with public transportation after.
After having already driven in South Africa and a couple of places in Australia (see Great Ocean Road), we were quite used to driving on the left.
For the Brisbane to Cairns journey, we wanted to try the campervan experience. We went with Spaceships Rentals getting the Beta 2S model. We were quite happy with our choice. While there were times, we wished we got a bigger van (and one where we can stand in), we got attached to “Philip J. Fry” and felt like it was our home for three weeks.
The cost of the spaceship campervan was $35.71 AUD per night, which came to $714.08 AUD for our 20 days with the van.
As for gasoline, we spent around $500 AUD on fuel on our whole trip. The average price for gas was around $1.20 per litre
Getting to Magnetic Island off the coast of Townsville required a ferry service, so we went with Sealink, which is one of the two ferry options you can take. At a cost of $34 AUD, the ferry takes 20 minutes, with 18 daily services, so you won’t have to wait long in between rides. This included all bus transportation in Magnetic Island.
From Sydney to Brisbane, we stayed mostly in Airbnbs and motels trying to get the cheapest prices. They range around $60 AUD – $80 AUD per night.
For about two weeks, we went to stay at a farm doing a workaway. Workaway is a website that allows members to contact one another to organise homestays and cultural exchange. Hosted by Ronnie and James, we were able to have free accommodation and food in exchange for helping them around the farm. This was around 5 hours a day consisting of tasks such as weeding, cleaning vegetables, stickering products, The farm that we stayed at was just outside Toowoomba, Queensland.
After our farm stay, we continued the rest of East Coast Australia in a van. The accommodation costs became quite low as we slept in free campsites every other night. We were able to find these spots using a combination of the Spaceships Camping app and CamperMate. We mixed up where we parked in caravan parks. These RV parks can vary in prices depending on what they offer. We usually go for a basic one which offers showers and a kitchen. They usually range around $20 AUD – $40 AUD per night.
Some unique caravan parks include the Horizons Kangaroo Sanctuary & Camp Ground in Agnes Water/1770 which is a hidden gem with has a kangaroo sanctuary right at your campground. Cape Hillsborough Nature Tourist Park was also a memorable one where its right by Cape Hillsborough Beach famous for wallabies feeding every morning at sunrise.
Since there are so many things that we did, . What is great is that most of the things that we did was FREE or cost very little.
A popular area for Sydneysiders to go on the weekends to escape the busy city. Only a 90 minute drive away from Sydney, we hit our first destination at Bouddi National Park. There hiked a portion of the Bouddi coastal walk where you can see beaches, boardwalks and birdlife.
A popular spot as its about half way between Sydney and Brisbane. This is also a great place to base yourself to see the surrounding area. Here are my recommendations:
- Its a bit out of the way, but I highly suggest driving the Waterfall Way Scenic Drive. Here you can find the most scenic falls in the country. Here are the ones to check out:
- Dorrigo National Park and the Skywalk Lookout
- Crystal Shower Falls
- Dangar Falls
- Ebor Falls
- Forest Sky Pier
- Muttonbird Island Nature Reserve
Byron Bay is one of the top destinations in Australia. It’s famous for its laid back lifestyle along with its fantastic beaches. It has exploded in popularity in recent years, so expect crowds especially in peak times. Here is what I recommend checking out:
- Cape Byron Lighthouse for sunset
- Cape Byron Walking Track
- Byron Main Beach
Gold Coast is where Australians flock for your typical tropical beach and theme park vacation. Just think of Florida for Americans. Most of Australia’s biggest theme parks are here such as Warner Bros Movie World, Sea World, and Wet ‘n’ Wild. There are also tons of beaches and tall skyscrapers, similar to Miami.
- My favourite area is the Gold Coast Hinterland. This lush mountainous area behind the Gold Coast is where the Springbrook National Park is with amazing viewpoints and waterfalls such as:
- Best of All Lookout
- Twin Falls
- Canyon Lookout
- Purling Brook Falls
- Visit the beaches – there are tons of great beaches ranging from surf to calmer ones in the area. Here are some to check out
- Surfers Paradise
- Burleigh Heads is a good area if you want to escape the crowds of Gold Coast. Just a 30 minute drive away, there are just as nice beaches along with Tumgun Lookout, in which you can see the Gold Coast skyline from a distance.
The capital city and largest city of Queensland, Brisbane offers the city vibe in our road trip. Its home to some great museums, fantastic restaurants and bars. Here are some things to do:
- Hang around at South Bank, where there is a city beach surrounded with many great eats.
- Head up the Brisbane City Hall Clock Tower for some views of the city
- Queensland Museum
- Gallery of Modern Art
- Take the free CityHopper ferry and see the skyline from the Brisbane River.
- Walk around what seems like a jungle in the city at the City Botanic Garden
- See the skyline of Brisbane from the Mount Coot-Tha Summit Lookout
Another popular beach town in Australia, Noosa attracts a mixture of backpackers and family vacationers. I think the vibe is similar to Byron Bay, but with a bit of a more older crowd. Here are some places to check out:
- Check out the coastal tracks at Noosa National Park where you can see these points:
- Boiling Pot Lookout
- Dolphin Point Lookout
- Fairy Pools
- Hell’s Gates
- Sunbathe or swim at one of the town’s many beaches
- On the way to Noosa, is the Glasshouse Mountains National Park. This park is filled with extinct volcanoes, in which you can hike up!
This is the long stretch between Noosa and the Whitsunday Islands. While there are few headline destinations, there are still a lot to see, such as:
- Rainbow Beach is a tiny little town, but is home to the Carlo Sand Blow. One of my favourite places in our road trip, this sand mass covers over 15 hectares and you feel like you are in the middle of a desert. These also sand dunes offer exceptional views of the ocean and is a great place to sandboard!
- Hervey Bay is the gateway for travelers going to Fraser Island. But it is also a great spot to rest in between your long drives. What was cool to check out was the Urangan Pier, a km long pier and a great place to see the changing tides and locals fishing. It is also one of the best places in the world to see humpback whales on their migration, from August to October.
- Next town to see is Agnes Water and 1770. The Town of 1770 is a historical site as it was the first western settlement in Australia, named after the year it was discovered by Captain Cook. This area is also a great place to learn surfing as it has the cheapest surf schools in Australia. Some things to see are the Wave Lookout and the Paperbark Forest Boardwalk.
- As we had time to kill, waiting for our tour at the Whitsunday Islands, we decided to drive inland to see the Carnarvon National Park. It is not a common stop along an East Coast road trip, as it is a 5 hour drive detour. If you have ample time and love hiking, I recommend on heading here. There are many different walks ranging from 30 minutes to overnight ones. The overnight ones do require bookings. Here is what you can see
- Moss Garden
- Baloon Cave
- Our next stop is Cape Hillsborough. The main draw of this place is the kangaroo and wallabies feeding on the beach at sunrise. There are also other things to do such as the walking on the Diversity Boardwalk, hiking to Andrews Point, and exploring Wedge Island. The island becomes accessible as a causeway emerges during low tide.
- While we did not visit Fraser Island, as no tours was running at the time, I highly recommend on going. The largest sand island in the world has over clear blue lakes, ancient rainforests, wild dingoes, all surrounded by white sandy beaches. However, you do need either a 4WD vehicle or go with a guided tour of the island.
The Whitsunday Islands are a group of 74 islands that lie off the coast of Queensland and form part of the Great Barrier Reef. These islands are one of the most popular Australian tourist destinations and a must on the East Coast Australia road trip. As they are islands, you do need to get on a tour, unless you have access to a boat.
We went with Sailing Whitsundays on the Whitsunday Adventurer. It was a 2 day and 2 night excursion with everything included such as food, accommodation, and the activities. We got to explore the main island, seeing the Hill Inlet Lookout and the famous Whitehaven Beach. Other activities include snorkelling the surrounding reefs and paddleboarding. We went for the cheaper shared accommodation at a cost of $482.13 AUD per person.
While it was nice size group at only 12 people, I felt that the tour was a bit pricey. There are many day tours available that will take you to main sights of Whitsunday for a lot cheaper, if you are on tight budget. However, we wanted to have the experience of sailing overnight.
Townsville and Magnetic Island
North Queensland’s largest city is the gateway to the wet tropics . While the city is usually just a stopping point to get to Magnetic Island, don’t skip out on the Castle Hill Lookout. See the breathtaking views of the city along with Maggie Island.
Taking the ferry over to Magnetic Island, you can find tranquil island that has become a must visit destination on an east coast Australia road trip. Here are the things to do on this island:
- There are many hiking trails, but the best one is The Forts. The 4km return hiking trail are filled with historic World War II fortifications and some of the best views of the island. Make sure to keep an eye out as there are wild koalas along the route.
- On top of koalas, there are rock wallabies roaming around. You can find these adorable creatures on the of the road heading towards Geoffreys Bay.
- At Horseshoe Bay, you can find jet ski and kayak rentals. But it’s also a good spot to tan and swim on the beach. Many great restaurants are also nearby.
Between Townsville and Cairns lies Wallaman Falls, the highest single-drop waterfall in Australia. There is a great viewpoint that’s right outside the parking lot but to get a closer look at the falls, take the 2.6-km Jinda walk into the gorge. This should take a couple of hours but it’s well worth the view from the bottom.
Far North Queensland is famous for its many picturesque and impressive waterfalls, and many of them are located in the Atherton Tablelands region. This lush highland plateau behind Cairns is a great escape from the hot tropical coast as the climate is fairly temperate all year round. Here are some of the sights to see in the area:
- Before heading up to Atherton Tablelands, head to Josephine Falls. This waterfall is a great place to cool off with many rockpools and natural waterslide on the rocks
- See the massive Curtain Fig Tree famous for its otherworldly roots
- Try your luck at seeing a platypus at the Yungaburra Platypus Viewing Platform. Unfortunately, we did not see one 🙁
- Take the waterfall circuit encompassing Zillie Falls, Ellinjaa Falls and the famous Millaa Millaa Falls.
Port Douglas and Daintree
Bypassing Cairns, we headed to Port Douglas, a resort town filled with great restaurants, quirky cafes and boutique stores. This is also the start of the Daintree Rainforest, part of the larger Wet Tropics of Queensland, the oldest tropical rainforest in the world.
- On the way to Port Douglas, you will take the Captain Cook Highway, a picturesque road hugging the coastline. Make sure you stop at Rex Lookout to see gorgeous views of the coast.
- We wanted to go to the famous Mossman Gorge. However, it was shut down for four months to reduce the exposure and spread of COVID-19 within the local Indigenous community.
- Crossing over the Daintree River, you get to Cape Tribulation. This area focuses on more small scale, eco-focused, communal vibe and full of nature and adventure. The area feels off the beaten path, partly due to the fact that you have to take a ferry over and that there is no cell service. Here are some things to do in the area:
- There are plenty of wooden boardwalks to walk through jungles such as Jindalba Boardwalk and Kulki Boardwalk
- Views of the rainforest, oceans, and islands from Mount Alexandra Lookout
- Daintree Ice Cream Company. Another place that was closed, that we wished we got to try. They are famous for their exotic ice cream flavours!
The largest city in the Northern Queensland is built on tourism as it is the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. You can find a lot of infrastructure here. From the international airport, tour agencies, and restaurants. There is not much to see and do here except for the artificial lagoon they have in the city centre. This can get quite popular as local beaches should be avoided during stinger season between October and May.
Great Barrier Reef
The Great Barrier Reef is one of the best places to dive in the world. Cairns is the most popular jumping off point for dive trips to the reef. Trips start around $200 AUD ($140 USD) for the day. I was blown away at the abundant wildlife and coral. It did not disappoint.
This was also our last stop in our road trip.
- Kuranda Barron Falls
- Cairns Esplanade
- Cairns Art Gallery
- Rusty’s Markets
Australia’s “Big Things”
A road trip is not complete without visiting random roadside attractions. Driving around the country, you can see Australia’s obsession with ‘big things’. There are dozens of large statues in every Australian state and territory that celebrate its unique culture in the region. Here are some that we were able to see on the East Coast.
- Big Banana in Coffs Harbour, NSW
- Big Prawn in Ballina, NSW
- The Big Pineapple in Woombye QLD
- Big Rum Bottle in Bundaberg, QLD
- Big Mango in Bowen, QLD
The total spend for our 25 days East Cost Australia road trip came to $2,794 AUD / $2,515 CAD / $1,900 USD per person, which comes to $112 AUD/ $100 CAD/ $76 USD per day.