Doing an East coast trip in Australia is almost a rite of passage for backpackers. No matter how long you plan to spend in Australia, you will get asked countless times about your plans or views on the East coast! Every travel agent will try to sell you an East coast trip, packaging must do activities and transport into an easy to follow itinerary for backpackers to buy at sometimes very over inflated costs. Planning your own Australian East coast trip may seem like a chore, but don’t be tempted to pay over the odds just to save yourself a few hours work! Here I will give you my top tips for planning your own trip, which will save you money in the long run!
What exactly classes as the “East Coast?”
Of course we are talking about the East Coast of Australia, but when people talk about this well trodden route, they are usually referring to Sydney, Cairns, and everything in between.
First, you need to figure out your time frame. Are you just taking a short holiday, or is this a longer trip, perhaps during your Working Holiday Visa. It goes without saying that the longer the trip, the more you can fit in. If you only have a week or two, consider what you feel you really must see. I would recommend the ideal time to be 3 – 4 weeks, but everyone is different.
Where to begin?
Most tourists arrive in Sydney to start their trip, however starting in Cairns and working your way down the coast has it benefits too. Consider the seasons and temperature, as you may find it makes more sense to start on the north. Cairns is hot all year round, where as Sydney has a Summer (December- February) and a Winter (June – August), so consider where you want to be in which month!
The practical stuff…
As with all travels abroad, don’t forget the essentials such as your passport, insurance etc. Use this handy travel checklist to make sure you don’t forget the important things!
You will see advertisement for the Greyhound bus everywhere, and it is a very convenient service. The buses are modern, and usually run twice a day. You can buy hop on hop off passes, but be aware that you do have to reserve your seat, so whilst it does offer some flexibility in that you could reserve the day before, you can’t just turn up and get on a bus. I suggest you don’t book your whole journey in advance unless you are on a tight schedule. Plans change, and I have lost count of the times I met people who were kicking themselves that their itineraries were set in stone and they couldn’t stay an extra day at favorite destinations. Another bus service is Premier, which I found equally as comfortable. It is cheaper than Greyhound, but sometimes the busses are at less convenient times. Another option is car or even campervan rental. If you are a group, this can be a great option, offering flexibility and saving money on accommodation. It really depends on your time frame, and I would suggest comparing options yourself based on how many people you are and how long your trip is. A comparison site is a good place to start. If you are in Australia for a longer period, I would recommend buying a car yourself. It offers a lot more flexibility, plus you can easily modify station wagons or vans to include a bed, and you will meet many other backpackers doing the same! You can find travel mates to split costs with on Rideshare Facebook groups, or even search for somebody offering lifts.
Much like my attitude towards booking transport, I prefer not to book hostels too far in advance. Unless it is New Years Eve, very high season or some kind of local event going on, hostels will not usually be full a few days in advance. During low season in Australia, I would search on Hostelworld, but not book via the internet. I would simply turn up at the hostel, and ask for a discount! Many places will say yes, especially for bookings of more than one night. I would only book ahead for perhaps Sydney or Melbourne. Their are a lot of really bad hostels in them 2 cities, and if you leave it too late you may end up somewhere really gross or shelling out a fortune! My favorite hostels on the East Coast were Port Stephens YHA and Base Magnetic Island.
Must see places
Everyone is different, but there are a few places on the East Coast that I really think you shouldn’t miss!
Fraser Island – Absolutely beautiful, Fraser is the largest sand Island in the world and only accessible by 4WD. Although I am not usually a fan of organized tours, for Fraser I would recommend it. Doing it alone can be way more expensive, and with a guided tour you can visit the best spots. I went with Dingo, and would recommend them. When booking a tour, I usually check the website for the price, then go to a travel agent and ask if they can beat it, so head to the nearest Peter Pans! Tours usually depart from Rainbow Beach, and generally include a stay at a hostel the night before at Rainbow Beach, where you will get to meet the people you will make the tour with.
Whitsunday Islands – Home of the famous Whitehaven beach, the best way to explore is by boat. As above, a tour is best unless you have your own sail boat knocking around! I went with Wings, but there are companies for different groups, such as more “party” style boats, or chilled and family friendly. I was really unlucky with the weather, as it rained all 3 days I was there, however the hour of sunshine we got was just as we arrived at Whitehaven beach, so at least that offered a little respite! Boats usually offer snorkeling or diving and are a great way to make friends! As above, check the website and head to a travel agent! Tours depart Airlie Beach, which is a great little town itself.
Great Barrier Reef – It is one of those “bucket list” destinations that you will kick yourself for not visiting! As a diver, I will be completely honest…I was a little underwhelmed. I saw more people in the water than anything else, but I think that was my own fault. I can’t remember which tour company I used, but it was a bit like a cattle farm, and I was kind of annoyed to be paired with a group of inexperienced divers who were not allowed to pass 12 metres and were kicking sand and coral. I have heard other people raving about their experience on the reef, however perhaps if you are a seasoned diver, it could be worth taking a liveaboard to the outer reef, as I have heard this is a much better experience.
Byron Bay – A surreal parody of a town, I still don’t know what to think of this place! It seems to be trying a little too hard, to the point that the whole town seems ….well, fake! It is, however, crawling with backpackers and easy to have a great time and meet new people. There is always a party going on somewhere in town, whatever day of the week! The beaches and nearby walks are beautiful and definitely worth sticking around for, and no East Coast trip in Australia is complete without a visit to Byron. Don’t miss the walk to the Lighthouse, and the most Easterly point in Australia.
Magnetic Island – A beautiful island, where I saw my first koala! I also saw a Humpback Whale and her baby swimming in the shallows off the coast. Take the ferry from Townsville (Around $30 return) and stay a couple of nights. For a party atmosphere check out Base Hostel, or for a more relaxed vibe there is a YHA. The island is famous for the “Barbie Cars” that you can rent, which make for cute photos, but can’t reach some of the more beautiful beaches. It is more advisable to rent a small 4WD to really get off the beaten path.
Sometimes getting off the beaten track can have its rewards! I like to travel slow and tend not to do huge stretches on transport. This usually means visiting the smaller and less crowded places in between the tourist traps, which can be quite a relief on the popular East coast of Australia.
Port Stephens – Truly a hidden gem, I spent a few months here working at a backpackers. Popular with Australian tourists, but still relatively undiscovered by the swarms of backpackers making their way up and down the East Coast. The beaches are pristine, and there is a beautiful viewpoint at the top of Tomaree Head. From here, I have seen whales and dolphins! You can also check out the longest shifting sand dunes in the southern hemisphere, either by foot, quad bike, or sand board!
Agnes Waters– A chilled and sleepy place, where you can do a surf lesson for as little as $17. There is not too much to do here other than relax on the beach and enjoy the short bush walks in the area, but if you need a little rest and relaxation on your trip, this is the place to find it.
Noosa– This little town has such a great feel to it. I stayed in Noosa YHA, which I highly recommend, for their pool table and free surfboards!
How much money do I need for my East Coast trip in Australia?
It’s that question that everyone asks, and no one seems to have a definitive answer for. I have met people who have spent $5000 AUD in a month on the East Coast, and others who got by on $1000. It all depends on you, and how you travel. If you are staying in hostels you can at least budget around $20 per night of your trip. Now add the costs you know you will incur (Fraser Island, Whitsundays, Barrier Reef Trip) and then a budget for food. I will add here that many people do a Sky Dive during their trip, but it scares the life out of me and I never did it, so I can’t give recommendations, but if you know you will do this, add that to your budget! If you eat out all the time you can be looking at up to $100 a day for 3 meals and drinks, but if you cook at hostels and carry food around with you, you can certainly live on $20 a day. Now you have a ball park figure, ask yourself realistically….Do you like to party? Do you travel around on foot or local buses? Or are you the kind of person that gets taxi’s everywhere? Are you content on spending days on the beach reading, or must you be doing action packed activities all day every day? Do you smoke? All these things will have effects on how much you spend, but at least you should be able to come up with a round about figure!
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