The Best East Coast Bus Companies
So this is it, you've 2 weeks to 2 months off of work, and your thinking of travelling the East Coast from Sydney to Cairns (Or Cairns to Sydney)? There's a pile of options for travel, you could fly to the three main cities- Cairns, Brisbane and Sydney- but you'd miss out on the reason for travelling- the adventure. And you'd miss out on some of the best places to see in Australia. Another option is you could rent a car or camper, and get a true experience- I'm not going to lie, it's good fun, and your completely independent, but you need to consider the distances: From Sydney to Cairns there are 2601kms of highway to cover, according to Google Maps. That's a tiring distance to drive, especially if you plan on drinking some nights! Likewise, you really need to travel with someone if you're renting a car or camper, driver fatigue can be dangerous, and having a second person to keep you awake is vital in these distances. So for individual travelers, a bus pass is the way to go.
Because of this, a hop on hop off bus pass is the most popular way to travel the East Coast, and the purpose of this article is to discover which is the best East Coast Bus Company for you. The bus companies cover most towns along the coast, and some inland, depending on the company. In the vast majority of towns, you are dropped right in the center, so there is no need to get a taxi or anything to your accommodation. The hostels that are away from the city center usually have a pick up service if you have booked with them and call them in advance. The only exceptions are Brisbane and Sydney, as the bigger cities are much more spread out.
One advantage of having a bus pass is that it takes the responsibility off your shoulders, by allowing the bus driver to take you there. You also won't have to figure out the route, it's already decided for you, you just choose where to hop off. Thirdly, you save money by using the bus passes- not only do you not need to pay for fuel, you can also take the buses overnight on those long journeys, so you don't need to spend money on accommodation. Finally, if you are a solo traveler, it's an excellent way to meet fellow backpackers- You are on a bus, travelling between towns with only the empty central Queensland wasteland to observe. Why not spark up conversation? Or whip out a bag of goon and make the trip more interesting?* There's no better time to get to know someone. The three most popular Hop on Hop Off bus companies are as follows: Premier Motor Service, Greyhound, and Loka.
Before going into detail on each company, and the differences between them, let me explain how a bus pass works. You purchase a 'Hop on, Hop off' bus pass, which can be valid for three months to one year, and is usually only valid in one direction. For example, if I bought a Hop On Hop Off 3 month pass, with Premier Motor Service, from Sydney to Cairns, it only begins once I make my first trip. So if I left Sydney on the 1st of January, my bus pass would be valid until the 1st April. Three entire months of travel covered with one ticket! The term 'Hop On Hop Off', which you'll see a lot in this post, simply means that you can get off the bus at each stop, and get back on at the same stop, or one further along in your direction of travel, without having to pay anything extra. For example, if I left Sydney on the overnight bus to Byron Bay with my Premier Bus Pass, I could hop back on in Byron Bay without paying extra, or if I managed to get a lift with someone further north to Surfers Paradise, or Brisbane, I could hop back on the Premier Bus there without paying anything more. For a pass to be valid in one direction, it simply means that you can't repeat the same bus trip twice. For example if I left Sydney on the overnight bus to Byron Bay with my bus pass, it would be northbound, and would only be valid for continuing north past Byron Bay. To go back towards Sydney, I would need to buy another ticket.
Because you can decide what day you want to travel, and because you can take long breaks between stops, these bus passes are perfect for travellers who prefer to be flexible, or for people on a working holiday who would like to complete their regional work while they travel. They are also perfect for making a trip unique to what you want- for example, you have a distant relative in Rockhampton that you'd like to spend a few extra nights with? No worries, stay there for 2 days, and hop on the next Premier Bus northbound if they end up been a bogan.
*Tripfarm and Conor personally strongly advise against whipping out a bag of goon on a bus, the bus driver will not stop for a goon related toilet break.
Premier Motor Service is a no frills way of travelling the East Coast by bus. All their coaches are fully seat-belt equipped, offer climate controlled air conditioning, have recliners, glare free windows, and they occasionally have on board entertainment. And most importantly- a working toilet. They are the budget method of travelling from Sydney to Cairns, or reverse, and are the cheapest way of travelling hop on hop off on the East Coast. They even have backpacker specific fares for one time journeys.
If you are travelling to or from Sydney, it is an overnight bus to Byron Bay with premier that means one night less of expensive accommodation to pay. They have two services a day from Byron Bay to Surfers Paradise and Brisbane, so you can usually hop on a bus right after your hostel check out, and, from Brisbane northbound, its one bus all the way, leaving around lunchtime. Because you change buses in Brisbane, there's an hour break between the buses- giving you enough time to grab some food and explore the city center if you're on a tight time-frame. There is also an overnight bus between Rainbow Beach and Airlie Beach, another way to save on accommodation.
Premier buses also have the option of upgrading your 3 month pass to a 6 month pass, which is perfect if you decide to stop in somewhere like Bundaberg and complete your regional work/ farm work. It's only ~$30 to upgrade, not bad for the peace of mind that comes with it. The extra 3 months are also sweet if you fall in love with somewhere like Byron Bay- perfect for been flexible. And best of all, you can upgrade at any time while travelling!
Finally, for those of you wanting to travel between Melbourne and Sydney, Firefly is Premier buses sister company- it offers an overnight bus for $70-$100, which is great value, and again saves you a nights' accommodation.
The only downsides to taking the Premier bus for your East Coast Trip are that it doesn't stop everywhere- for example it misses out on Yamba, an epic little surf town on the central New South Wales coast, where you need to get off in Maclean (The hostel owners in Yamba are legends though- if you're staying longer than three days, they'll pick you up and drop you off from the return bus!) Premier buses also doesn't stop in 1770, you get dropped at the turn off (but there is a return mini bus, $20 each way to all your accommodation). But, because Premier doesn't go into these towns, it means its faster than both Greyhound and Loka. Also, Premier buses are slightly older than Greyhound and Loka buses, and so they don't have the USB plugs that Greyhound have, or the Wi-Fi options on some buses.
Greyhound and Oz Experience combined their services, so that they use the same transport- the Greyhound bus. Oz experience passes are normally more expensive as they include some activities, that's the only difference. Partially because of this, Greyhound is the most famous bus company for travelling the East Coast- but most famous East Coast bus is not necessarily the best East Coast bus. Greyhound however have the most comprehensive bus network in Australia, both inland and along the coasts, with a huge variety of options for booking. Their buses are comfy, modern, have reclining chairs, usually contain USB port for charging your stuff, a working toilet, and some buses even have Wi-Fi! Greyhound buses also leave several times a day, but don't always stop in the same places, so taking care while booking is recommended.
The main advantage of taking the Greyhound is the flexibility that they offer- you have two options a day for travelling, so if you want to spend a few extra hours getting surf lessons in 1770, you can. This flexibility means that there are 3 possible overnight buses with Greyhound: Sydney<> Byron Bay/ Rainbow Beach<> Airlie Beach/ Airlie Beach<> Cairns. That means 3 nights less accommodation to pay! Also, every bus has USB chargers on the back of the seat in-front, this means you can watch a movie on your phone, sleep on the overnight bus, and wake up with a fully charged phone for the day- no need to bum around in the hostel waiting for your phone to charge.
If your using Greyhound, you can go to every town on the East Coast, including directly to Yamba and 1770/ Agnes Water (Perfect if you're travelling down from Cairns and want to learn to surf- get the cheapest lessons in Aus in 1770, and be a pro by Yamba!).It also pulls into Australia Zoo, between Brisbane and Noosa. But, these extra stops mean that their buses can take slightly longer than the premier buses on the same route.
With Greyhounds Hop On Hop Off passes, there are a ton of different options, the most popular being a 3 month Hop On Hop Off pass. Like Premier buses, you have the option of upgrading to a 6 month pass if you plan on doing your farmwork along the way.
However, unlike Premier buses, Greyhound also has released a brand new option called a Whimit Working Holiday Pass- this is an option where you can choose the length of time you like, and you can travel on as many greyhound buses as you like in this time- these passes run from 7 days of travel($249) to 365 days ($1499). The longer passes are perfect for people who want to do there farmwork inland, as the Hop On Hop Off passes generally just cover the coastal routes, whereas the Whimit passes cover EVERY Greyhound Service in Australia.
But the main con of Greyhound is that it's expensive, over $100 more in general for East Coast Hop On Hop Off passes. That $100 could be spent on another tour, another 3-4 nights' accommodation somewhere, or if the USB charger is the selling point, 4 portable chargers. The Wi-Fi in general is also quite poor- it doesn't run on every bus, and on the buses it does run on, it's usually quicker to simply use your phone data. Finally, as mentioned earlier, it's also slower than premier on some of the longer routes.
For more information on timetables check here: https://www.greyhound.com.au/Information/timetables
And here is a survival guide to travelling by Greyhound:
Loka is a unique way of travelling the East Coast by bus, where instead of the standard east coast bus passes that are used by the general public, you're on a bus specific for travelers, with a tour guide as your driver, who frequently pulls off the highway onto little hidden gems, that most people don't see! Loka buses also don't stop in all the same spots as Premier or Greyhound, they offer unique Australian experiences, in unique locations. For example, one of their stops is in the world heritage Barrington Tops National Park, where you stay in a private lodge overlooking the Barrington River. It even has a hot-tub in the lodge, so it's not your typical hostel stay. However, Loka still does hit the main sights on the East Coast, Sydney, Byron Bay, Brisbane/Gold Coast, Noosa, Rainbow Beach, Airlie Beach, Magnetic Island, and Cairns. Loka's unique stops really are worth doing, and they take you off the beaten path, and it is a completely different way of seeing the East Coast compared to Premier Motor Service and Greyhound. If you have being to New Zealand and are familiar with Kiwi Experience or Stray, expect a similar type of experience (Maybe slightly less party focused that Kiwi Experience!).
Lokas buses are also smaller than Premier buses or Greyhound buses, and with your own guide it makes it much easier to meet and connect with people in your group. Add on to that the optional experiences that can be added to your bus pass, and you have a solid atmosphere to work with for your few weeks/months up the East Coast. Loka guides stay with you for at least half your trip, so you normally get to know them too- they pride themselves on their personality along their professionalism, and having a guide for the East Coast is a pretty big plus if you're curious about Australia.
But it's not just buses you'll use with Loka, between Noosa and Townsville you travel by train, which again is a different experience compared to the bus travel with the other companies.
Certain hostels will hold spots for Loka buses until 48 hours before you arrive, so if you're travelling in peak season, you can book out their selected accommodation two days before hand, when it might be completely booked out for everyone else! Loka passes are also valid for an entire year from when you start your trip- so if you want to really take your time and experience the East Coast, or find regional work, that's no problem. They are also reusable- you can travel the same route as many times as you fancy in that year. Finally Loka is very much backpacker focused- the average age of travelers is 24. This doesn't mean you can't travel with them if your 104, provided you have the right mindset it's all good!
Now the disadvantages to Loka: Having your guide with you all the time does mean it costs more, and if you book in-between their sales periods it's much more-$1135 from Sydney to Cairns. However, your experience will be completely different to most, and if you can catch it on a sale, it's much better value for money- check here for the current prices.
But on the other hand, when you book Loka you get certain tours cheaper along the East Coast, for example Magnetic Island is $35 cheaper for Loka passengers if you stay in Bungalow Bay, and your ferry to Magnetic Island is included with the pass. These little savings add up, and with frequent sales Loka can work out the same price as Greyhound.
However, with Loka's unique stops, many of them are compulsory and sometimes quite remote (I recommend trying them all, they're amazing, but not if you want to stay in towns all the time). Your drivers will stop at the supermarket for supplies but just to be aware, if you run out of alcohol there's not much you can do but ask around! Likewise, it takes a minimum of 3 days from Sydney to Byron Bay, which is something that you should take into account before purchasing.
Having traveled with both Premier Motor Service and Greyhound in the past, I honestly don't feel like the difference in price is worth it. I'm also big fan of saving money on transport and spending it on activities, so Premier is my go to option while travelling the East Coast. It helps that I'm not fussy about my buses- as long as it gets me from A to B, I couldn't care less what it looks like. However, the new WHIMIT option from Greyhound is a gamechanger, if your planning on doing a lot of travelling between cities. However, having done Stray in New Zealand, which is similar to Loka, I do appreciate the uniqueness of travelling by Loka. My advice would be if you have the cash and want to get off the beaten track a bit, go for Loka! You won't regret it. But if your on a budget and would prefer to use your dollarydoos to travel longer, go with Premier Motor Service.
Have you traveled the East Coast? Add your opinion to the comments below!