Great Barrier Reef For Backpackers

How to do the reef on a budget and still have fun.
The Great Barrier Reef for Backpackers and the Adventurous:

Cairns and Airlie Beach are both great areas for backpackers and adrenaline junkies to base themselves in to visit the Great Barrier Reef. Whilst Cairns is a more popular location, Airlie Beach also has a lot to offer travellers on a budget.

We know that travel to the Great Barrier Reef is not cheap but there is only one Great Barrier Reef and it is definitely money well spent. If you are a backpacker on a tight budget then cheap hostels and backpackers can be found in Cairns, Airlie Beach and Townsville. These cities are a great place to base yourself to gain access to the Great Barrier Reef on day cruises. With over 3,000 islands and coral reefs stretching 2,000 kilometres of the coastline it is impossible to discover the entire Great Barrier Reef but it is far easier and more cost effective to pick one destination from which you will explore the reef from. Here is a breakdown of each city and what it has to offer for backpackers.  


Visitors to Cairns will have an enormous choice of cruise operators from large ferry transfers to Green Island, tours to the outer reef platform, sailing tours and trips to Fitzroy Island.

For the best value for money, a tour to the Outer Great Barrier Reef platform is recommended. These tours transfer passengers out to a reef platform where you can enjoy unlimited snorkelling and diving or stay dry and take a semi-submersible coral viewing boat tour. Most reef platforms also have an underwater observatory. If you have a few extra dollars to splurge then you can also take a short helicopter flight from the reef platform over the reef to get a bird’s eye view of this beautiful natural wonder. The variety of activities in a day tour like this will suit groups who have a range of swimming abilities and interests and with all meals included for the entire day it is exceptional value for money. 

Great Barrier Reef Pontoon, Cairns

If you are a keen diver then you will want to splurge and choose a tour that caters specifically for divers such as Quicksilver or Silverswift departing from Cairns or Port Douglas. If you are
a diver travelling in the company of snorkelers, don’t dispair as there are a number of operators that offer both snorkelling and diving so that no one needs to comprimise or travel separately. 

Alternatively,for those who just want a taste of the reef, a visit to Fitzroy Island and Green Island  can be a great budget friendly option. Green Island is 45 minutes away on a ferry with several transfers available throughout the day. The island is surrounded by fringing reef for snorkelling and a unique rainforest walk. Be aware that the island can become crowded at times when day cruise passengers visit. The quality of snorkelling is not as great as offshore reef locations but it is a great way to introduce yourself to the reef and visit a beautiful coral cay island. 

Green Island, Cairns

Fitzroy Island is another island that surprisingly doesn’t get as many visitors as Green Island, however, for many this is a massive bonus. You will not struggle to find a place to lay down your towel or find some serenity here but there are enough activities to prevent you from boredom as well. The island is well suited to the budget travel who is after a day trip to an island without the finer trimmings but can still snorkel off the beach and be outdoors amongst nature.

You can reach Fitzroy Island by ferry and snorkel in crystal clear waters off the beach. The island has a water sports centre so you can also dive, kayak and stand up paddle board. The quality of snorkelling here is quite good with small tropical fish and the odd clownfish found swimming in the coral reef. However, it is the turtles that really entice and excite the snorkellers and they can be found here swimming amongst the seagrass by the resort. Visitors will enjoy the stunning secluded beaches and bays. Glass bottom boat coral viewing tours are available for the non-swimmers who can experience the reef without even getting wet.  Cruises to the island depart Cairns twice daily from the Reef Fleet Terminal. 

Airlie Beach

Overnight sailing cruises are an extremely popular option in the Whitsundays because the destination is made for sailing with a collection of islands and infinite coral reefs and beautiful beaches just waiting to be explored. The benefit of these tours is that you can visit several sites, and a variety of water activities including kayaking, snorkelling or diving and visit the famous highlights such as Whitehaven Beach and the Hill Inlet Lookout. These tours are budget friendly when you factor in several days worth of entertainment, accommodation and meals that are included. Overnight tours are not for everybody though and there are many day cruise options instead. Ocean Rafting operate half day tours to Whitehaven Beach and Hill Inlet in a high-speed raft.

The journey is half of the excitement of the day as you travel in a high speed boat to various snorkel sites and Whitehaven Beach. You may also choose to island hop and visit Hamilton or Daydream Island.  Water sports are available depending on your budget such as sea kayaking and jet skiing. Perhaps you want to spend the day sailing? There are a few tall ship vessels and luxury sailing/catamarans that venture out to secret and secluded snorkel sites around the islands.

Hamilton Island, The Whitsundays

You won’t have to worry about crowds or several tour boats in the Whitsundays as cruise operators are spoilt for choice with the huge number of coral reef sites they can take you to. However, if you are on a budget or short on time then outer reef tour to reef platforms are exceptional value for money and will keep everyone happy because they cover a lot of ground and include many activities in a one day tour to suit swimmers and non-swimmers. Airlie Beach also has an outer reef platform situated at Hardy Reef with daily cruises transporting passengers to the reef for a day filled with fun discovering this underwater playground. 

Magnetic Island

Magnetic Island is the only island in the Great Barrier Reef to house a backpacker hostel and a number of other budget friendly options such as bed and breakfasts, motels and camp sites making the Great Barrier Reef an accessible destination for all budgets. In addition, there are several natural experiences on the island that give visitors the opportunity to have personal encounters with wildlife in their natural habitat rather than a zoo or wildlife sanctuary. See Koalas in their native environment on bushwalks through the Eucalypt forest, hand feed rock wallabies on the beach at sunset or swim the snorkel trails to see Giant Clams and tropical fish. There are a myriad of activities that are suitable for backpackers and adventurers looking to make the most out of their time visiting the natural wonder of the world. To reach Magnetic Island, visitors can jump on regular ferry services from Townsville with the journey only taking around 20 minutes.

Visitors will have the Great Barrier Reef at their doorstep with snorkel trails from the beach at Geoffrey Bay and Nelly Bay. Snorkelers simply follow the numbered trail taking them past objects from a historic plane wreck and a number of tropical fish.


Picnic Bay, Magnetic Island

Diving the SS YONGALA Wreck

Divers must not leave Townsville or Magnetic Island without taking a charter to the SS Yongala Wreck. This shipwreck meant its fate in 1911 but it has only been recently been discovered and is consistently voted as one of the top 10 dive sites in the world. The wreck remains largely intact at the bottom of the ocean and with significant coral growth a huge number of marine life are attracted to this site for shelter and as a food source so it is  huge thrill for the divers that are lucky enough to visit it.

SS Yongala Wreck Dive- Image Courtesy of Adrenaline Dive

The SS Yongala Shipwreck can be a challenging dive recommended for certified divers only. If you are beginner and want to try an introductory dive than outer barrier reef tours are more suitable option. These cruises take passengers out to areas with high visibility and probability of personal interactions with marine life amongst the coral reefs in shallower depths. You can also be rest assured that as a beginner that you will be given personalised attention and taken on easy dives.

Great Barrier Reef is a great destination for all travellers regardless of your budget. With so many destinations to choose from, it is possible to experience this natural wonder on a backpacker’s budget. Whether you choose to visit popular cities like Cairns, Airlie Beach, Townsville, have an island stay at Magnetic Island or perhaps opt for a Whitsundays sailing cruise- you will be sure to have a fantastic holiday filled with fun and unique travel experiences at the Great Barrier Reef.