East Coast of Australia Road Trip Ultimate Guide
So you’ve saved up the cash, heard about how great travelling Australia’s East Coast was from other travellers in your hostel, and you’re ready to get going... but where to start? Our East Coast of Australia Road Trip Guide covers the 2600kms of coastline along the traditional East Coast, between Cairns and Sydney, with all the top stops and attractions along the way, including discounts on tours and bus passes.
This is a long post, so we’ve divided into a table of contents:
How will you do it? Will you rent a car? Hire a camper? Get a bus pass? Hitchhike? Fly? A combination of all the above? There’s so many options, you need to ask yourself a few questions:
Do you want to do it alone? So you’re a completely independent, individual traveller, who has no real time limit, and is determined to see the ‘real’ Australia, then by all means hitchhike or ride share. The main advantages are that it’s cheap, you never know who you’ll meet on the way, and you’ll no doubt have some amazing unexpected off the beaten track adventures. But, be prepared to be waiting at petrol stations/sides of the roads for hours at an end, in some cases not even getting a lift, and so you need to camp or stay in a hostel nearby. It’s also seen as dangerous by some people (promoted by the movie Wolfe Creek), and impossible to plan anything (But then again, that’s the point!).
So hitchhiking isn’t for you and you want to travel cheap? The next most cost effective way of travelling is almost certainly a bus pass, from Premier Motor Service, Greyhound, or Stray Australia. We go into detail comparing and contrasting the different bus companies here. In short- Premier is by far the cheapest hop on hop off option, Greyhound is the flashy, more expensive cousin with more buses, and Stray Australia is for those who want an experience similar to Kiwi Experience in New Zealand- fully guided, with the same group of people, but completely flexible to what you want to do. Each of the bus companies have the advantage of dropping you into the city centres of the big cities, the passes last from 3 months to a year, and are hop on hop off, meaning you can stay in a place and get back on whenever you like.
Are you more than 2 people and have a drivers licence? Then car and camper rentals are the way to go, even more so for the larger groups! Not only is it cheaper the more you are, it’s more flexible than the buses, and with a camper you have your accommodation costs included in the price. But, you have to bear in mind you’ll have long hard days driving, and fuel and toll fees add up- and especially fines if you get caught speeding, Australia is a bitch for them. Campers do let you do the classic road trip vibes though, where you’re speeding down the highway with tunes blaring, living the good life. If you’re travelling for less than two months, than a camper or car rental is the way to go. At Tripfarm, we get discounts off the following brands:
Budget Camper Van Rental
Flights between places? If you’re really short on time, and rolling in cash, go for it- you can fly to most major destinations on the East Coast, and the only must see your missing is Fraser Island. But honestly, if you’re so short on time you have to fly to each destination, it’s better to do less, but do it properly. There’s a lot missed (And a lot of money spent) if you simply fly Cairns-Airlie Beach-Brisbane- Sydney.
In summary: If long hungover drives aren’t your thing, you’re a solo traveller, or if you’re on the budget side of things- stick with the bus passes. If you are a larger group that wants to drive, or you love the romance of a good road trip, go with a camper or car rental. If you’re an intrepid soul with no time limit, hitch hike that bad boy.
Best Time of Year to Travel?
June-September are the winter months in Australia, meaning it’ll be cold anywhere south of Brisbane, but it’s dry season everywhere north of the Tropic of Capricorn. January/ February are the most popular times of year for backpackers to travel, and it’s hot the entire way along the coast, although it’s very sweaty in Cairns. If your on a budget, the best time of year to travel is leaving Cairns in late August/ early September, arriving in Sydney Octoberish- this way you get the cheap winter deals on all the tours going down the coast, along with what should be decent weather the entire way. If it’s just weather related, I’d start in Sydney around March and head north, arriving in Cairns in April/May. Perfect for finding farm work, and a warm place to spend the winter months.
So, you’ve decided how and when you want to travel.. But what is there to see? Well.. The highlights for the East Coast are different for everybody. But by far the most popular places to visit are Byron Bay, Fraser Island, the Whitsundays, and The Great Barrier Reef (Usually from North Queensland, in Cairns).
Let’s start at the top, in Cairns:
Cairns is the big city of tropical north Queensland, where there are only two seasons, wet and less wet. It's humid, hot, and full of life all year round, and is the number one spot in Australia to visit the Great Barrier Reef from. Cairns is a bit of a party town, with famous hostels such as Gilligan’s, and hotspots such as Woolshed and PJs hosting nightly events. In Cairns itself, there's not an awful lot to do, apart from visit the aquarium, swim in the lagoon and relax by the pools, but around Cairns has nearly any activity you can dream of. It’s definitely the adventure sports capital of Australia.
Getting to Cairns: Cairns airport is a 10 minute drive from town ($20 taxi, $10-$15 shuttle bus, free shuttle buses if you stay in Gilligan’s), while the Greyhound stop is right beside the marina, 10 minutes walking from the centre, and the Premier Bus station is 5 minutes walk from Grafton Street.
Things to do in Cairns: Scuba dive or snorkel on the Great Barrier Reef, waterfall tours of the Atherton Tablelands, visit Cape Tribulation, bungee jump, skydive, canyoning, white water rafting, fly boarding, fishing trips, swim at the lagoon, party.
Recommended time in Cairns: 3-4 days, more if you’re into adventure activities.
Where to stay in Cairns: If you like to party, the only place to stay in Gilligan’s- it’s awesome.
If you want a good mix between partying and chilling, Mad Monkey is a great shout, and has free breakfast.
If you want to chill, Globetrotters International is the one for you- they also have free breakfast and free dinners some nights.
Avoid Nomads Cairns at all costs as its way out of the centre.
Here’s a quick description of the most popular activities:
Waterfall tour of the Atherton Tablelands. The waterfalls and lakes around the Tablelands are amazing, the most famous is the Milla Milla Falls, where Petre Andre shot Mysterious Girl, and where people do the famous herbal essences hair flick! Slide down natural waterfalls, do flips into the rivers, stick on that mankini, and prepare to get wet. All the companies are good, but Uncle Brian’s has a special place in my heart- my favourite one day trip in Australia no doubt.
Great Barrier Reef cruise, snorkel and scuba diving. The Great Barrier Reef is easiest to get to from Cairns, and boats usually stop at two different areas of the Great Barrier Reef for snorkelling and scuba diving. The reef itself is incredible, photos of how colourful it actually is don't do it justice, and if you choose a good quality trip it really is a once in a lifetime experience. It’s probably the safest place in the world to try a scuba dive here, with max 4 people to an instructor, and extremely strident safety laws. The instructors guide you to the most common spots for finding aquatic wildlife, such as clownfish (Nemo), small reef sharks (they don't bite) and turtles. The cruises usually include free snorkel hire, stinger suit hire, and a guide. Oh, and buffet lunch, all you can eat!
There are a million and one cruises to choose from to do the Barrier Reef, as long as you are getting to the outer reef you’ll have a good experience, with plenty of coral and marine life! Here are our picks:
Passions of Paradise: A great little catamaran that almost always has intro scuba dive specials, and goes to its own unique sites on the outer reef. It feels friendlier than most because of it’s small size.
Compass Cruises: The budget Barrier Reef cruise! At just over $100, it’s a little older, a little slower than other ships, but at that price you can’t complain- it’s still good quality, all snorkel gear inclusive.
Reef Experience: Compass’s better quality newer cousin, that includes a free scuba dive for everyone on board, certified or intro. Bigger, and cheap due to its size, it does share reef spots, although the ones it visits tend to be very good.
Reef Quest: Diver’s Den’s premium day trip that heads to the outer reef, with exclusive sites on Hastings and Norman’s reef, including a few excellent walls. Good value for money, and they sometimes have a completely free intro dive!
Of course, if you want you’re scuba licence, is there a more romantic place to get it than on the great barrier reef? There’s a bunch of options for it, all with their own ups and downs, and they really deserve a post of their own:
Prodive are Cairns premier dive centre, and have 11 dives included on their live-aboard Open Water Course. They’re the most expensive as they have a small ship (max 32 passengers), and great quality.
Deep Sea Divers Den are one step down from Prodive, but one step up in terms of their live-aboard ship quality- its brand new and like a floating hotel. They also offer 11 dives, including night dives.
Cape Tribulation and the Daintree Rainforest. Imagine this: staying in a beachside lodge, surrounded by one of the oldest rainforests in the world, hearing all the noises from the various tropical animals while you sleep... Waterfalls running down from the top of the mountains, rainforest all around you, and all you can hear is the sound of the water and the birds in the trees whilst you’re swimming in the beautiful, natural rock pools. This is Cape Tribulation. You can also do a crocodile river cruise to see the crocodiles in the wild, and see amazing views at Alexandra lookout point, while eating some of the worlds best icecream. Not a bad way to spend 2 days. The cherry on top? You've the option of zip lining and horseback riding along the beach during your stay too.
Bungee Jumping/Swinging. Cairns has Australia's only bungee jump tower, where you can jump with AJ Hackett from an 80-metre platform overlooking a pool. It’s not for the faint-hearted, but a huge adrenaline rush, and a must do for those who love bungeeing, or who can’t make it to NZ!
Whitewater Rafting. Nearby Cairns is the Tully River, the only river in Australia with grade 5 rapids that can be commercially rafted. It's a day trip of Xtreme rafting, some canyoning, and waterfall slides, and is well worth a look at if you are into adrenaline sports- there are less strenuous options for people who prefer a more relaxing raft, on the Barron River.
Haven’t had enough info about Cairns? Check out our Exploring Cairns guide.
After a few activity-filled days in Cairns, then where? Well, you’ve a choice- you can head straight down to Townsville, and catch a ferry to Magnetic Island, or you can tick off a bucket list item, by skydiving in Mission Beach.
Mission Beach is a quiet coastal beach town; about 2 hours drive south of Cairns, on the Cassowary Coast. It’s a relaxing, calm village, but is famous for some of the most scenic adrenaline pumping activities you can do- it’s probably Australia’s most famous skydive, with the beach as the landing zone! Several companies do skydives here with multiple departures every day, and they’ll even bring you from Cairns to skydive here. Although the skydives are cheaper down the coast- Brisbane, Byron Bay, and Fraser Island often have specials, this is the home of Australian Skydives. It’s also closer than Cairns to the Tully River, so if you’re thinking of White Water Rafting, head here and save a bit of money!
Getting to Mission Beach: Premier and Greyhound drop you beside the town here, and Jackaroo has a free shuttle bus for guests.
Where to stay in Mission Beach: Jackaroo Jungle hostel, or Scottys YHA. Jackaroo is more remote, but feels like it’s deep the jungle, and has a lot of wild wallabies around it, while Scotty’s is more centrally located. Both are great for a few nights, although it’s a decent walk into town from Jackaroo.
Townsville is an underappreciated city on the East Coast- it’s mostly frequented by people doing their farm work in the area, and often used solely as the gateway to Magnetic Island (Which is understandable, but if you have an extra day or two, spend it here!). The buses drop you off right at the ferry terminal, so if you’re planning to head to Magnetic Island you can go directly there. In Townsville you’ll find nice hill hikes in the town, and lovely national parks a short drive outside, including one Paluma National Park, of the few national parks in the world, where you can see wild platypus! There is also an abundance of World War Two museums, where Townsville was a major staging point for military.
Where to stay in Townsville: There is no decision making to be done here: Stay at YHA Rambutan, a spanking new hostel that’s got a pool, is right by the centre and the port, and is resort quality for backpacker prices- $26 a night!
However if you’re on a strict budget- There is also Reef Lodge Townsville, where prices start at $21 a night.
Keen to learn more about Townsville? Check out our Exploring Magnetic Island and Townsville guide.
Magnetic Island is a wildlife lovers paradise, home to the most wild koalas in Australia, loads of rock wallabies, and marine life you can snorkel to from the coast. It's a tropical island, based just off the coast of Townsville, and is a hidden gem on the coast compared to the Whitsundays and Fraser Island. It’s relatively quiet, with just two hostels, and the island itself can be driven around in a day. A days driving will lead you to tons of viewpoints, hidden beaches, quirky things (Such as a grand piano on the beach, and an abundance of Barbie cars), and outstanding wildlife.
In the past, it was the home of Australia’s full moon parties (Now limited to only a few times a year, but Base Hostel still has a party atmosphere), it’s hostels are top notch, and relatively cheap for what you get. The Base hostel is literally along the beach and includes 2 nights in an 8-bed dorm, one breakfast, one dinner and one drink, the return ferry, and free snorkel hire, for $118, while the YHA Bungalow Bay is located in the middle of a wildlife sanctuary, not far from the beaches of Horseshoe Bay either!
There’s plenty to keep you busy for a few days on Magnetic Island, with great snorkelling that you can walk to from the beaches, an abundance of topless cars to hire (Although we recommend a 4x4, to get to the off the beaten places), and is also a place where you can dive the Yongala wreck from, one of Australia’s top scuba sites, for advanced divers. If you’re a beginner, it’s also the cheapest place in Australia to get your open water license, only $350 for your SSI, or $420 for your PADI.
Getting to and around Magnetic Island: The ferry drops you to Magnetic, and you can use the Sunbus to get to your hostel- the cost is $2-3 a trip.
Things to do on Magnetic Island: Snorkelling, hiring a topless car, short hikes to the viewpoints, scuba diving, getting your scuba license.
Recommended time on Magnetic Island: 2-3 days.
Where to stay on Magnetic Island: Base Magnetic Island for the party/beach lovers, YHA Bungalow Bay for it’s chilled out vibes, and for animal lovers. Both of them have specials when booked with the ferry.
Further down the coast, between Townsville and the Whitsundays mainly farming towns- good if you’re looking for work, especially in Australian winter, as farms tend to hire year around north of the Tropic of Capricorn! The one exception to this is if you’re a scuba diver, and want the best place to go to, to visit the Yongala- for that there’s the town of Ayr, where Yongala Divers can offer you space in their lodge, and pick you up from the bus station too.
Airlie Beach is the ironically named town (They don’t have a beach), that serves as the mainland gateway to the Whitsundays Islands National Park, and also to one area of the Great Barrier Reef (The other gateway is Hamilton Island). It's a town based around travellers who want to visit the Whitsundays and is basically one, although admittedly long, street of hostels, travel shops, and bars. In Airlie Beach itself, there is not an awful lot to do- most hostels are chilled out, clean, and there is a free lagoon you can visit that is surrounded by palm trees.
The Whitsundays Islands, on the other hand, are a collection of 74 tropical islands that have some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. The most famous been Whitehaven Beach, the 3rd most photographed place in Australia, and so beautiful that they filmed Pirates of the Caribbean on the beaches here, as they thought it looked more beautiful than the actual Caribbean. The beach itself is snow white sand that is so fine it squeaks when you walk on it, and is illegal to take from the beach, with hefty fines! The waters surrounding Whitehaven beach are crystal clear, with plenty of stingrays, small lemon sharks, and other tropical fish that you can see while standing in the water, and it’s the definition of an island paradise- In fact, some Whitsundays islands have been transformed into Australia’s 6 star resorts!
Getting to Airlie Beach: Premier and Greyhound drop you at the bottom of the town, a 5-10 minute walk to hostels. Proserpine Airport offers budget flights, and is 25 minute drive, with shuttles frequently running ($15-20).
Things to do in Airlie Beach: Jetboating, Whitsundays Cruises (1 day, overnight, and 2-night options), Skydiving, chill at the lagoon, snorkelling, Great Barrier Reef cruises, scenic flights.
Recommended time in Airlie Beach and The Whitsundays: 4-5 days.
Where to Stay in Airlie Beach: Airlie Beach has Magnums, Nomads/Base, and Backpackers by the Bay. Of those, Nomads/Base is resort like, and the most party like, while Magnums is more chilled, and has the best priced private rooms on the East Coast- perfect for a couple who haven’t had privacy for a while!
To give a quick rundown on getting to the Whitsundays: There are day boats, which cost between $150-$250 depending on what you want. These leave daily, and will nearly always have availability, the only exception been in January. The one night boats, all leave early in the morning, before 9am, and return by 4pm the next day, and are all inclusive. The two night boats all leave around lunchtime, take you out to fringe areas of the barrier reef for snorkeling, and park in secluded coves at night so it's not choppy and so that seasickness isn't a problem.
The accommodation is on-board, so you sleep on the boats themselves, and the vast majority are all-inclusive, bring your own beer boats. They include 3-4 meals a day, cooked by the crew on board, along with all your snorkel and wetsuit hire and some boats give you the option of an introductory scuba dive. The more social boats are the Atlantic Clipper, Boomerang, Tongarra, and Spank Me, while the more chill boats are New Horizon, and Ride to Paradise. Budget travellers will prefer Habibi, while divers will prefer Apollo, which is more expensive, but is three full days, and includes a dive in the price.
Which Whitsundays Boat to choose?
This depends- the most popular get booked out weeks in advance, unless its wintertime, so availability is key. For people who want to chill for 1 night, go with Waltzing Matilda, or SV Whitehaven. For the more mature crowd, these suit too.
For 1 night party lovers, Hammer is the boat to go with.
For detailed information on the different party boats, check out Whitsundays Party Boats on a Budget.
Dive boats: Apollo, Kiana (Kiana goes to the Barrier Reef).
All the overnight boats go on sale from May-September, be sure to send us a message if your thinking of booking one. Likewise, contact us for availability.
After Airlie Beach
Between Airlie Beach and Fraser Island, there is a lot of nothing, with the most notable town been Rockhampton. Premier and Greyhound offer overnight buses direct to Hervey Bay, Noosa, and Rainbow Beach for those who are on a tight timeframe and are travelling Southbound, and these buses work with most Whitsundays tours.
Want more information on Airlie Beach and the Whitsundays? Check out our guide for Exploring Airlie Beach.
If you’re a meat loving carnivore, you’ll love Rockhampton. Rockhampton is known as the beef capital of Australia, and has some of the finest steaks you’ll find in the world. It’s definitely not a backpacker town, but it has some untouched attractions that you can awe people with- such as Emu Park Yeppoon, and the Great Keppel Islands- an amazing set of sand islands where you can get within a few meters of turtles, and definitely an underappreciated place on the coast!
Getting to Rockhampton: Premier and Greyhound drop you off in the centre of Rockhampton, on their overnight service between Airlie and Hervey Bay. The drop off times suck though, as they’re both very early morning.
Recommended Time in Rockhampton: 1-2 days.
Things to do in Rockhampton: Eat steaks, head out to Emu Park and Yeppoon, and visit the Great Keppal Islands
Where to stay in Rockhampton: Rockhampton YHA.
After Rockhampton is another area of farming towns, until the next point of interest- the town named after a date, 1770 and its sister town, Agnes Water.
1770 is known as the first place in Australia that Captain Cook landed, in the year, you guessed it, 1770. The town itself isn't very big, it's very much a place to chill out, and is the last place in Australia if you’re travelling north where you can surf before the Great Barrier Reef gets in your way. It’s also the last place if you’re travelling south where you can visit the Great Barrier Reef from, on a cruise to Lady Musgrave Island. The town is also known for its cheap surf lessons, $17, and it's becoming more popular for its nature tour with a twist- you conduct the tour on a modified chopper motorcycle, and are guaranteed to see kangaroos as you drive around the countryside.
The other popular activity in 1770 is called Castaways. Castaways is a bit like the tv show 'Survivor', you and up to 10 others get dropped on a deserted desert island, and your guide teaches you how to fish, build your own shelters, and all the necessities to survive on your own for 2-3 days! One thing to note about 1770- the Premier bus doesn't stop here, so there is a $20 fee each way to get picked up and dropped off at the Premier bus stop (Included in the package price unless stated otherwise). It’s possible to visit 1770 all in one day, as the bus times drop you off so early.
Getting to 1770/Agnes Water: Greyhound drop you directly to the town and Southern Cross will pick you up from the bus stop. Otherwise, Premier drops you off at the turn off to 1770, and there is a shuttle bus to the hostels and town, for $20 each way.
Recommended time in 1770/Agnes Water: 1-2 days.
Where to stay in 1770/Agnes Water: Cool Bananas is the centrally located hostel with an incredible vibe, well worth a stay. If you prefer something more scenic, Southern Cross Backpackers have a huge open space surrounding their hostel, with a big pool in the middle, and is also the staging point for Scooteroo.
After 1770, you’re getting back towards civilization- there’s the town of Bundaberg, and then the Fraser Island towns of Hervey Bay and Rainbow Beach.
Bundaberg is a farming town best known for its rum, and it’s dodgy farm work. They say the best thing about Bundaberg is the road out of it, and it’s definitely not worth a visit, unless you’re really into rum making and want to visit the factory, or you have farm work to do- if farm work is the case, take care and make sure to check the reviews of the farms, as some have terrible reputations. Likewise, the working hostels aren’t known for their quality! However, you can visit the southernmost part of the Great Barrier Reef, in Lady Musgrave Island, but most tours go from 1770.
Getting to Bundaberg: Premier and Greyhound can both drop and pick you up from the station in Bundaberg.
Things to do in Bundaberg: Visit the Great Barrier Reef, farm work, rum factory, get out of Bundaberg.
Recommended time in Bundaberg: 0 days.
Where to stay in Bundaberg: Bunk Hill Hostel is the only one I’d recommend without feeling guilty about the quality. Avoid Blue Dingo/Queenslander like a plague.
Hervey Bay is the biggest town you can visit Fraser island from, although, it’s arguably the worst for backpackers. It’s a sleepy town, perfect for a beach relation, but it’s certainly not the prettiest (Noosa), or the most fun (Rainbow Beach). However, it’s the first place to head to Fraser Island from if you’re coming down from the north, and between April and October it’s a great place to do whale watching from. Of course, been the biggest town it has more facilities and bigger supermarkets than towns like Rainbow Beach, and been the mature Fraser visitors gateway, there are plenty of accommodation and options for visiting Fraser. It’s also got some amazing fresh seafood, with top notch shellfish. If you’re a backpacker, it also has the cheapest overnight trip tagalong trip to Fraser with Fraser Dingos pink 4 wheel drives 2 day 1 night tour starting at $350. There is also Cool Dingos, the backpackers Fraser Island bus tour, and Palace Fraser Island, who offer longer trips, and run their own hostel, Palace Hostel.
Getting to Hervey Bay: Premier and Greyhound drop people to the centre of Hervey Bay, from overnight trips up the coast.
Things to do in Hervey Bay: Visit Fraser Island, Jetski hiring, Whale Watching, seafood.
Recommended time in Hervey Bay: 1-2 days
Where to stay in Hervey Bay: Flashpackers, Palace, Aussie Woolshed are all decent places to stay. If your on a budget Palace is the cheapest (And even cheaper if you book a Fraser Island tour at the same time), Flashpackers is the best quality though.
Need more information about Fraser? Check out our guide for Exploring Fraser Island.
Rainbow Beach is a quaint little town, situated between the Noosa Everglades and Fraser Island. It's the most popular place to stop for backpackers doing Fraser Island tours and is well known in the area for its colourful sand dunes (hence the name, Rainbow Beach), its quiet atmosphere, and it's break wave on the beach at double island point- Australia's longest surf break. Although Rainbow Beach is small, there are two hostels- Dingos and Pippies Beach House, with Dingos as the only hostel with a bar. Dingos give free sandboards to their guests, so its well worth walking the 30 minutes to Carlo Sandblow and trying out sandboarding yourself, before watching the sunset over the Sunshine Coasts stunning interior. Rainbow Beach is also the cheapest place for skydiving with a beach landing you can find anywhere in Australia and has some amazing scuba diving with grey nurse sharks for advanced divers at Wolf Rock.
Recommended time in Rainbow Beach: 2-3 days.
Where to stay in Rainbow Beach: Dingos is the place to stay if you want to be near a bar, but is a little dingy- if possible ask for a room in the Frasers On Rainbow side, as its newly renovated.
Pippies is the place if you want to drink for cheap, as you can bring your own beer here. If you’re going to Fraser Island book the accommodation at the same time as your Fraser tour, and get the accommodation for cheaper.
Use the discount code FRASER on checkout for a 10% discount.
Aren’t sure what tour to do? Keep reading, or check out our Fraser Island from Rainbow Beach post.
Fraser Island is awesome- it’s without a doubt my favourite place in Australia as a backpacker to visit, and I’m not alone in that feeling. It’s the largest sand island in the world and the only place where rainforest grows on sand. The famous beach on Fraser is 75-mile beach, and it’s literally a drive with crystal clear water of the Pacific Ocean on one side, a beach that seems like it goes on forever in front of you, and rainforest growing on the dunes of the other side.
But it’s not just the amazing beaches and rainforest that makes Fraser so stunning- the island is covered in freshwater lakes where the water is so clean you can drink it, and you can see clearly where the water changes from completely clear, to a light turquoise, to dark blue.
Fraser Island tours are available from Noosa, Rainbow Beach, and Hervey Bay, and most tours are self-drive- so if you have a driver’s license and are over 21, you can drive the 4wd yourself as part of a guided convoy across the island. There are no roads on the island, so a 4wd tag along tour is what 90% of backpackers travelling to Fraser do.
The accommodation is usually camping, with all the equipment provided, although there are options for hotel and dorm stays that are more expensive. 3 days and 2 nights is the standard- less and you won’t see as much.
2 day tours still see the famous lakes, and make it to the Maheno Shipwreck, but miss out on gems such as the Champagne Pools. All 4wd tagalong tours are all inclusive, except for alcohol. So download a good playlist, get ready to drive, and enjoy the road trip!
Want detailed information on Fraser Island? Go to our Exploring Fraser Island guide.
Getting to Fraser Island: If you plan on going to Fraser Island yourself, you need to have a 4wd, as there are only sand roads on the island. You can get ferries from Hervey Bay, and Inskip Point, just north of Rainbow Beach.
Things to do on Fraser Island: Lake Mckenzie, Lake Birrabeen, Lake Wabby, 75 Mile Beach, Eli Creek, Champagne Pools, Indian Head, Scenic Flights.
Recommended time on Fraser Island: 3 days
Which Tour to Take to Fraser Island?
It can be easy to be overwhelmed by the many different Fraser Island tours- here’s a handy guide to break it down. Ask yourself the following questions:
Are you short on time or money? Do a one day tour with Fraser Explorer from Rainbow Beach or Fraser Discovery from Noosa- Rainbow Beach takes longer to get to but is cheaper.
Are you short on time but want to do a tagalong tour? There are two day options from Noosa (Nomads Fraser and Dropbear ), Hervey Bay (Fraser Dingo), and Rainbow Beach (Dingos and Dropbear ). This depends on availability, as they get booked out weeks in advance. Nomads Fraser and Dingos are more for partiers, Dropbear is for those who prefer a few quiet drinks around the campfire. Nomads Fraser is only December-April, Dingos is everyday.
Do you want even longer on Fraser Island? Palace Adventures and Cool Dingos offer 4 day, 3 night options.
Do you want a camping tagalong 4wd tour with a party atmosphere? This is the toughest to choose- Dingos is the classic one, from Rainbow Beach- and it’s excellent. Pippies is the same, and cheaper (The only difference is different campsites). Nomads Fraser is further from the island, as they depart from Noosa, you can save time going from here, but it’s also more expensive as it’s longer driving. Nomads Fraser also have dorm sleeping options,not just camping like the others, but is not BYOB as it’s located on a bar premises, but they do have up to 60% off drinks at the bar.
Noosa is a chilled out Aussie surf town, similar to Byron Bay, but with fewer dreadlocks. The best thing about Noosa is Noosa National Park, located right by the centre of the town. Noosa National Park can be walked around in 2-3 hours, and the coastal walk from Noosa Main Beach to Hell’s Gates is class, with clear blue water, rugged cliffs, and a good chance of spotting turtles, dolphins and koalas in the wild. Well worth a nature walk and the views of the beaches are stunning!
All the hostels in Noosa offer free surfboard hire, perfect if you've surfed earlier along the east coast, and you have the option of seeing Australia Zoo (Steve Irwin's), or the Australian Everglades from here. The Australian Everglades is one of only two everglades systems in the word, along with the Everglades in Florida. The water is so tranquil you can see the reflection of the trees along it in a mirror effect, and they are home to 48% of the bird species in Australia.
Finally, if you are short on time you can travel to Fraser Island from here- it's a longer drive so you get less time on the island, and slightly more expensive, but you save travelling to Rainbow Beach/Hervey Bay for 2 days. If you’re thinking about visiting Australia Zoo, you can do it as a day trip, or even do it as part of your journey down the coast- stopping off there, leaving your backpack in a locker, and continuing down to Brisbane in the evening. Contact us for a few $$ off Aussie Zoo!
Where to stay in Noosa: Noosa Nomads is known as the party hostel- it’s got a nice pool, and has a bar attached to it, but is a little expensive, especially during the summer. Flashpackers and Dolphins Beach House are nice chilled out, reasonably priced places. Halsa Lodge YHA is the best located hostel, and like all YHAs has very high standards, but is a little more expensive than Flashpackers or Dolphins.
Want to go to Fraser Island from Noosa but don’t know what tour to do? Check out our Fraser Island from Noosa guide to all the tours, and get yours cheaper!
The Sunshine Coast
Although Noosa is officially part of The Sunshine Coast, The Sunshine Coast deserves a section for itself. The Sunshine Coast is all the towns between Noosa and Brisbane, including the hilariously named Mooloolaba, Maroochydore, Alexandra Heads, Coolum, and Coolandra. The Sunshine Coast is one of the best places in Australia to do your farm work while along the coast, in a location you can surf, as they have plenty of strawberry fields, pineapple farms, and a crab factory here, along with fishing ships. The Sunshine Coast has a mix of backpackers, and older Australians that move here for the sun, but normally has plenty of employment in retail too.
There are plenty of things to do in the Sunshine Coast too- it is one of the few places where you can go swimming with whales (April and October), wreck scuba diving of the HMAS Brisbane, tons of different hikes and national parks, and Aussie Zoo. One recommendation if you have a car- head to Bribie Island for some awesome sunsets! The national parks and waterfalls such as Kondalilla and Gardner Falls have some great rope swings into rock pools- if you’re into that.
Getting to the Sunshine Coast: Premier and Greyhound have stops in Mooloolaba and Maroochydore daily.
Recommended time in the Sunshine Coast: 1-2 days.
Where to stay in the Sunshine Coast: Mooloolaba Backpackers is the place to stay on the Sunshine Coast- It’s cheap, has a pool, and is centrally located. A good working hostel for finding farm work too.
Avoid Suncoast Backpackers at all costs- why? Click here.
Brisbane is Australia's underappreciated Queensland capital, the little brother to Sydney and Melbourne on the world stage. Despite having a population of 1.6 million people, Brisbane has a small town charm about it- it's also the only Australian city besides Canberra not located beside the sea. The beautifully brown Brisbane river cuts through the city centre, with the Story Bridge (Brisbane’s alternative to Sydney's Harbour Bridge) spanning across it, and the hostels on Roma Street have rooftops with views of the river that most hotels would be jealous of.
There is a thriving alternative life/craft beer scene in Westend, huge food markets in New Farm, and a nightlife based around Fortitude Valley. There is also Southbank in the city centre, Brisbane's man-made beach and botanic gardens that's free to enter. Located just off the coast of Brisbane are two islands, Moreton Island, where you can go dolphin feeding and snorkelling on a day trip, and Stradbroke Island, home to Australia's largest wild wallaby collection. Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary is popular to visit too- it's Australia's oldest wildlife sanctuary, and you can get your picture taken holding a koala here, and you can visit Australia Zoo on a day trip, with the option of continuing on to the Sunshine Coast the same day.
Getting to and around Brisbane: Premier and Greyhound end their buses from both Sydney and Cairns at Roma Street Station. There is a short stopover between buses, or you can stay a night or two on Roma Street, where the hostels are a 5 minute walk away. Brisbane’s trains and buses use the Gocard, which you can buy at Roma Street Station.
Recommended time in Brisbane: 2-3 days
Where to stay in Brisbane: Been a major city, there are tons of options-
Summerhouse Backpackers is the nicest hostel on Roma Street, with amazing wifi, free breakfast, BYOB, and a nice rooftop overlooking the Brisbane River. If you’re looking for a pool, City Backpackers has one on the same street, but is a little more dingy.
Bunk in Fortitude Valley is the place to go if you want to party- it’s attached to Birdies, a popular student bar, and has drink specials, and is in the heart of Brisbane’s nightlife, while still remaining clean and modern.
Brisbane Backpackers Resort in Westend is a nice place to chill and tends to attract a more alternative crowd.
Big Bird is the cheapest- with dorms for $18 a night, great if all you want is a place to sleep.
Base Uptown has good private rooms in the city centre, is a bit of a party spot, and is above the Guilty Rogue, another backpacker hotspot.
Avoid Nomads Central and Joe’s Place if at all possible.
Surfers Paradise is the central town of the Gold Coast, and can be best described as the Miami/ Magaluf of Australia, and is the fakest city in Australia- imagine fake tan, fake tits, and a fake name- it’s beach isn’t even a surfers paradise, instead it was a marketing ploy made in the 1930s! Surfers is a collection of skyscrapers along the beach, and is home to many of Australia's theme parks, including Dreamworld, Wet n Wild (not that Wet n Wild your dirty bastard), and Movie World. Australia's tallest building is here, Q1, and Surfer’s clubbing scene is legendary, with a whole range of options, from Bedroom to Sincity to Shooters. Although not everybody's favourite, it's still well worth visiting for a day or two as the views from the city are fantastic. Currumbin Wildlife Park is also a great alternative for people who didn’t make it to Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary in Brisbane.
Further down the Gold Coast from Surfers in Coolangatta. Coolie, as it’s known, is a far more chilled version of Surfers, with great waves, good food, and nice views from it’s lighthouse, as well as amazing views of the city. It’s great if you want to chill out for a few days, surf, but still be in the city.
Getting to Surfers Paradise: Premier and Greyhound stop at both the Central Bus Station in Surfers, and in Coolangatta. Premier also stop at the airport for drop offs and pick ups.
Recommended time in Surfers Paradise: 1-2 days, especially Thursday/Friday/Saturday.
Where to stay in Surfers Paradise: Backpackers in Paradise for a budget travelers-it’s cheap and cheerful, and pretty central.
Bunk Surfers Paradise if you want a brand new, modern nice hostel, and in the centre.
Sleeping Inn/Budds are two in-between stays in the centre- not bad for their price, but without the same quality as Bunk.
Coolangatta YHA is the place to stay in Coolangatta.
Avoid Surfers Paradise YHA! It’s a long way from everything.
After the Gold Coast you cross the border into New South Wales and onwards to a ton of excellent surf towns all the way until Sydney, starting with Byron Bay.
Byron Bay is the alternative capital of Australia. The town motto is 'cheer up, slow down, chill out', and this description couldn't be more apt for Byron Bay. Here, life revolves around taking things easy, enjoying the waves and the beach, and being a good person to both yourself and others. Most people in Byron Bay don't wear shoes- it's the alternative health capital of Australia, and its hippy vibes have spread goodwill around the world. Byron Bay’s beaches are legendary, and its lighthouse has amazing views, especially at sunrise and sunset (it's well worth the hour-long walk up to it, and some hostels will even run shuttles for the early mornings).
The town itself is small, with an excellent foodie scene, although it’s quite expensive. For those who like to party, Cheeky Monkeys and Woody's Surf Shack are good shouts, and there is weekly live music nights on the beach. For most people, Byron is a must do on the East Coast, up there with the Whitsundays, and, to put it into perspective, people stop in Byron Bay for a few days and end up staying a few months, but their hearts wait there forever.
Getting to Byron Bay: Premier and Greyhound have multiple buses per day, from Sydney and Brisbane. There is also a shuttle from Gold Coast Airport called Byron Easy Bus.
Things to do in Byron Bay: Surf Lessons/Camps, Dolphin Kayaking, Lighthouse Walks, Nimbin(the weed capital of Australia) for some green cookies and hemp, Scuba Diving at Julian Rocks, Skydives, Hanggliding, Yoga Retreats.
Recommended time in Byron Bay: 3+ days.
Where to stay in Byron Bay: Byron has plenty of accommodation options, and the prices shoot up in the summer months, often topping $50 for a dorm room.
The alternative people who want to really get a feel for Byron Bay- Arts Factory is the place to stay, it’s got yoga lessons in the mornings, and a very out there vibe. Also it has shuttle buses into town, and shuttle buses for sunrise at the lighthouse.
Finally Aquarius Byron Bay is famous for it’s free ‘dinners’, and it’s great atmosphere.
Want a ton more info on Byron Bay? Check out our Exploring Byron Bay guide.
Spot X Surf Camp
Spot X is the first popular place to stop if you’re leaving from Sydney Northbound, or one of the last if you’re heading southbound. Spot X is a hidden surf gem along the central NSW coast, where the breaks are sweet as, the atmosphere is always cheerful, and the beers are always cold. It's becoming renowned as Australia's premier surf camp for all levels, from beginners to surf instructor, and is a must stop place if you want to surf your way up the East Coast. It's located on Arrawarra Beach, 5 minutes outside the stop of Woolgoolga, where both the Premier and Greyhound Buses make daily drop-offs.
If surfing isn't your thing, there are still other activities you can do, such as kayaking and kangaroo golf, but really, life here revolves around making the breaks. It is run by Mojo Surf- they do courses in surfing from 1 day beginners, to week-long surf and stays, to 3 month 'become a surf instructor' courses. The accommodation is owned by Mojo Surf here, and it's been voted the best nightlife in Australia, despite having no bars- everyone spends the evenings around the campfires, with shuttle buses to the bottl-o every evening. 2 days + recommended, depending on how much you want to learn to surf.
If you already know how to surf, then I wouldn’t stay in Spot X unless you want to get lessons- where I’d go is Yamba. Yamba is Byron Bay 20 years ago, before it got all preachy. It’s small, it’s homely, and it’s life revolves around surfing- and good that it does, it’s got maybe the best surf in Australia, so good that word famous pro surfers live by here. There is only one option for accommodation here- a family owned YHA, with possibly the best tour you can do in Australia here- Shane’s Tour. Shane’s Tour is famous, for being crazy cheap, and been extremely secretive about what goes on on it.. but with incredible reviews. It has to be done to be believed, and expect a day of thrills, extreme adventure, and slightly deranged, red bulled up madness. The YHA Yamba is a close family, people return here after leaving for years, and there are stories of people starting there East Coast here from Sydney, but never leaving!
Getting to Yamba: Greyhound drop off right in the town, Premier drop you off in Maclean, 15 minutes away by car- YHA Yamba will pick you up from Maclean if you stay more than 2 nights.
Recommended time in Yamba: Plan 1-2 days.
Things to do in Yamba: Shanes Tour, and Surfing
Where to stay in Yamba: only one option, YHA Yamba. And what a great place it is.
Finally, after here you can stop in Coff’s Harbour, or Port Macquarie, or Newcastle before continuing on to Sydney. Most people with bus passes take the bus straight to Sydney- it’s overnight so you save on accommodation, and a lot of these central coast towns are very similar- lots of surf, great weather from Spring- Autumn, but nothing extremely special (The people of Coff’s and Port Macquarie would disagree!). Stop more if you’ve time, need to split your travel up, or have a love of surfing.
Coffs Harbour is the main town on the banana coast, and home to one of Australia’s great loves: Giant statues of things, which, in Coffs Harbours case, is the Big Banana. Coffs Harbour is a great place for backpackers who want to relax for a few days, enjoy the sunshine, surf, and be in an authentic Aussie town- Byron Bay can hardly be called typical or authentic Aussie! There are a few coastal walks in the town, including one above the harbour that is definitely worth doing during your stay, and Coffs Harbour is also a good town to do your farm work- There’s plenty of berry picking from October onward, with bananas and nuts in the area around the town. Although, it can be chilly during the winter, and most farms don’t hire during this time.
Getting to Coffs Harbour: Premier and Greyhound stop in Coffs Harbour, and often the hostels provide pick up.
Recommended time in Coffs Harbour: 1-2 days
Things to do in Coffs Harbour: Muttonbird Island, Dorrigo National Park, Butterfly House, The Big Banana, Dive/get you PADI in Solitary Islands National Park
Where to stay in Coffs Harbour: Aussitel and YHA Coffs Harbour are both excellent places to stay, for cheap, with free surfboards, fishing gear hire, and SUPs, while Hoey Moey is the place to go if you’re doing your farm work, and it’s located right on the beach, although it can be pretty messy for a stopover if you’re not doing your farm work.
A couple of hours south of Coffs Harbour is the town of Port Macquarie, a quieter town that hosts large retirement populations. Sounds great right? Well this means that for surfers, there aren’t as many on the same waves as you, and it’s surrounded by nice beaches, including the ‘clothing optional’ Miners Beach (better miners than minors!). The Port is also home to a Koala Hospital that’s free to visit, where they rescue koalas that have been injured crossing the roads, and the Billabong Zoo, a wildlife park where they breed koalas. Kayaking in Camden Haven’s azul blue waters, or heading to Crowdy Bay’s National Park are all good ways to spend a day. All in all, Port Macquarie is an OK place to spend a night, or two if you like surfing, especially if it’s getting late and you’re driving through the region- the other towns nearby of Wauchape (Formerly known as ‘Wanghope’; The people of Wauchape clearly can’t read, you’ll understand once you hear the pronunciation)and Kempsey, are two towns taht are definitely not advisable stays.
Getting to Port Macquarie: Premier and Greyhound both stop here, although at terrible times in the night, if you’re taking the night buses.
Recommended Time: 1 day, more if you like surfing.
Where to Stay in Port Macquarie: AussiePozzie Backpackers is a good stay, and probably the most social spot in Port, although Beachside Backpackers and Port Macquarie Backpackers are better for those on a budget- they have free breakfast included!
Newcastle is NSW’s second city, and it’s back to proper civilisation when you arrive here. Newcastle definitely isn’t a backpacker city- but it is a student city! Is there much difference? That’s up for debate. Newcastle is best known for its pumping nightlife, it’s giant penis tower, and its great beaches and ocean swimming pools, along with numerous heritage buildings, that come from been one of Australia’s oldest cities. There are also numerous coastal walks, such as Bathers Way Coastal Walk, the memorial walk, and the fantastically named Nobbys Beach. And of course, Newcastle is great for surfers, it hosts annual Australia wide surf competitions.
Getting to Newcastle: Premier and Greyhound both stop here, with Premier stopping at the Railway Station, and Greyhound dropping off at the Customs House, near the wharf.
Recommended time in Newcastle: 1-2 days.
Things to do in Newcastle: Skydive, Surf, Coastal Walks, Drink, Beaches
Where to stay in Newcastle: Newcastle Backpackers is the cheaper option, but not exactly in the city centre, instead located a little away in the suburb of Hamilton.
Newcastle YHA is more costly, but right on the beach. Both are highly rated.
The end (or start) of the East Coast, Sydney is huge, world famous, and you can easily spend a week here exploring the city. With it’s picturesque Opera House, The Rocks, The Harbour Bridge, Hyde Park, The Royal Botanic Gardens, Bondi/Coogee/Northern Beaches and so many coastal walks, you’ll never be bored in the city- add to that the Blue Mountains and Royal National Park and you’ve a few tasty day trips to do! Sydney isn’t for the faint-hearted though- it’s big, impersonal, and can seem like everything is in a rush, which can be a shock if you’ve spent a month relaxing on the East Coast!
Must do’s are definitely visiting Bondi Beach, the Bondi to Coogie Coastal Walk, barbecues on the beach, and the Blue Mountains. If you get a chance to come at New Years- do it! It’s one of the best in the world, although accommodation should be booked 5-6 months in advance.
Getting to Sydney: Sydney Airport is in the city, with trains connecting it to the centre. Greyhound and Premier pick up and drop you off right by Central Station. With the various trains, buses and ferries all accepting the OPAL card, Sydney isn’t difficult to get around, although the trains are cancelled quite frequently.
Things to do in Sydney: A million and one, if you’re here for only a few days definitely the coastal walk between Bondi and Coogie, the city centre, and a trip to the Blue Mountains, and Royal National Park. Skydiving is also an option, along with day trips to Port Stephens.
Near Bondi: Bondi Backpackers is very nice, with an amazing rooftop overlooking the beach.
Kings Cross: Summerhouse in Kings Cross is great, and has free breakfast.
Contact us with your dates in any hostel in Sydney for a discount- especially for long term stays.
How to Plan Your East Coast Trip
Well first of all- contact us! We’ve travelled the East Coast so many times (And booked it so many more times), that we know it like the back of our hands- and you’ll get it at least 10% cheaper than if you booked it yourself!
Likewise, check out our detailed guides for each locations:
Exploring Byron Bay
Or, if you’re just looking for ideas:
30 nights to get from Cairns to Sydney.
Here’s how I’d divide that time:
Cairns 3 nights
Cairns to Townsville, Ferry Townsville to Magnetic Island
Magnetic Island 2 nights
Ferry to Townsville, Townsville to Airlie Beach
Airlie Beach and Whitsundays 4 nights
Overnight bus to Rainbow Beach
Rainbow Beach and Fraser Island 5 nights
Noosa 2 nights
Brisbane 2 nights
Gold Coast 2 nights
Byron Bay 4 nights
Yamba/Spot X 2 night’s
Overnight bus to Sydney
Do your trip like this and you still have 2 nights left over, where you could stay in 1770/Agnes Water, or Mission Beach, or even extend your time somewhere- you like to drink and party? Gold Coast/Byron Bay/Cairns for another night! You want to relax somewhere with amazing beaches and walks- Noosa, or 1770! Surfer? Yamba or Spot X for another night!
So you’ve only 20 nights?
Cairns 3 nights
Magnetic Island 2 nights
Airlie Beach and Whitsundays 4 nights
Overnight bus to Noosa
Noosa and Fraser Island 4 nights
Brisbane/Surfers Paradise 2 nights
Byron Bay 3 nights
Overnight bus to Sydney
Cairns 3 nights
Airlie Beach and Whitsundays 3 nights
Overnight bus to Noosa
Noosa and Fraser Island 4 nights
Byron Bay 3 nights
Overnight bus to Sydney
Be prepared for a lot of time on buses, we really don’t recommend- better to see 2-3 places more than all the coast, or only do Cairns-Brisbane- but here you go.
Cairns 2 nights
Airlie Beach and Whitsundays 2 nights
Overnight bus to Noosa
Noosa and Fraser Island 2 nights
Byron Bay 2 nights
Overnight bus to Sydney
Choose somewhere, stay there for 5 nights.
There you have it, the longest blog post in the world- and the ultimate East Coast Roadtrip Guide between Cairns and Sydney!
Did you find this guide useful? Have you any questions about any place along the East Coast? Do you plan on doing it yourself at some point?
Leave a comment!