Backpacking Australia’s east coast is a rite of passage for anyone visiting the continent. For those who may be unfamiliar, it’s a 1,500 mile (2,400 km) stretch of some of the best sights the country has to offer including the Great Barrier Reef, Sydney, and countless incredible beaches. When we first arrived in Australia we had no idea it was even something to do, so I’ll break it down for you with everything I wish we had known in advance.
Where and When to Start
The basic east coast trip starts in Cairns and ends in Sydney, or vice versa. Many people, particularly those with limited time, may also choose to work Melbourne into the trip, although Victoria isn’t technically on the east coast. It doesn’t really matter if you work your way up or down the coast because you’ll pass through all the same destinations, but there are a few things one should keep in mind when planning.
The northern half of Australia has two seasons: wet and dry. This is something you’ll want to be very aware of when planning your trip. Northern Australia is hot all the time, but things get particularly bad in the peak of summer. The wet season ranges from November to April. During this time, temperatures are high and humidity levels rise dramatically. While you can still see the sights you want to see, expect much harsher weather, including monsoonal rains and storms. This coincides with the summer season in southern Australia, when beautiful weather hits and the beaches become even better. The trip can be done any time of the year, but you will likely want to account for these changes.
Jellyfish are another thing to consider. Australia is known for its dangerous animals that can kill. If you thought beaches were safe, you’re wrong. For about half the year, the beaches in Northern Queensland are not swimmable. Deadly marine stingers like the Box Jellyfish and Irukandji make their way towards the shore, making it extremely unsafe to go in the water. From Cape York to Townsville the season lasts from October to June, while from Townsville to Gladstone it’s from December to March. During these times you won’t even see locals in the water, although some of the more popular beaches put up stinger nets making it relatively safe to swim within the defined border. What this means for travelers is that you’ll be able to go to some of the most beautiful beaches in the world but can’t swim. At least not until you get to Noosa. If this doesn’t bother you, great! If it does, go at a different time. Even outside this time, watch out for crocodile warnings. Deadly crocodiles infest the waters of some of the beaches year-round making them completely off-limits.
Forest and I began our trip the first week of December just as the wet season was beginning in Northern Queensland and summer was coming to New South Wales. We decided to fly up to Cairns from Melbourne, which was still coming out of winter, so that we could try to beat the wet season up north and work our way down just as summer was coming to the south. If you’re planning to travel the coast at the end of the Australian summer, I would recommend doing the opposite.
There are two main ways people get from place to place along the coast: bus or car. The bus is typically a hop-on, hop-off pass that gets you from the one end of the coast to the other. Those who take a car usually opt for a campervan–a medium-sized van that can be driven along the coast, serving as your home and transportation throughout the trip. There are pros and cons to both, and it really depends on what you value most.
Bus is probably the most popular way to travel the coast. Most backpackers purchase a hop-on hop-off pass that allows them to get from Cairns to Sydney (or Melbourne) at their own pace. The two main bus companies operating along the east coast are Premier and Greyhound. While both companies are essentially the same, Greyhound is slightly nicer and offers WiFi and outlets on each bus. It’s also a bit more expensive: a three month pass for Premier is $350, while it’s $440 with Greyhound. The passes allow you to travel from one end of the coast to the other at your own pace during the three month period. You can either book it all in advance so that you have a set amount of time in each place, or play it day-by-day and schedule your busses when you feel you’ve had enough time at the stop. Do keep in mind that you’ll likely need to reserve your spot in advance as some routes do fill up depending on time of the year. Busses are nice because there’s a limited cost to it and you pay in advance so you no longer have to worry. They also hit all the main destinations, and you’ll begin to see familiar faces on each trip as you work your way through. The downside, however, is that there’s less flexibility and the drives are often longer than it would take in a car.
Campervans give you complete freedom to go where you want, stay as long as you’d like, and get off the beaten path. The key distinction is that you will be camping if you’re using your van to its full potential. This means you’ll save money on accommodation, but you do have to organize campsites as you go. You’ll also be sleeping outside or in your car for the entire trip. Some may find this great, but know what you’re signing up for. Campervans are also a lot of upfront cost, and you do have to worry about fuel during the trip. Expect to pay around $44 a night for a van on the low end, or $1320 for 30 days. This is a general estimate from JUCY, which we’ve found to be one of the cheapest and most reliable rental companies here in Australia. You may also choose to purchase a car, which is fairly easy. Many companies offer relocation deals to bring the cars up or down the coast in the off season, so this could save you some money if the timing is right.
If you’re taking a bus you’ll likely be staying at hostels along the way. As I’ve recommended before, Hostelworld is a service we use to book many of our trips. The east coast is full of backpackers and there are at least several at each stop, so you should have no problem finding a place to stay during the trip. The earlier you book, the more will be available. I suggest having a look at reviews, particularly looking for the ones that seem to have the best social life. You’ll make the majority of your friends at your hostel so this is really important. Expect to pay around $25-45 a night.
You’ll need about a month to complete the trip, but it can vary. We were on the coast for about five weeks in total. We saw everything we wanted to see and didn’t feel rushed at all. In fact, there are probably some places we could have spent less time. It all depends on what pace you would like to move at and how much money you have to sustain your travels. Some people choose to stop along the way and hang out for an extended period of time if they like a place, but most people will spend at most a week at one stop. You’ll need at least three weeks to comfortably see everything. Any shorter and you’ll have to pick and choose which stops to make. Even at three weeks you’ll be on the move every few days.
How much you should bring depends on how strictly you can adhere to a budget and what activities you want to do. You can spend as much or as little as you would like. There is truly something to buy on every corner, so be prepared. The things that really add up are eating out, drinking, and excursions. If you go out a lot, expect this to be one of your biggest expenses. Alcohol is insanely expensive in Australia compared to countries like the US and UK. All hostels have kitchens and you can live pretty cheaply by grocery shopping and cooking for yourself. There are also tons of trips and tours to take, and additional activities like scuba and skydiving. Big activities like these usually cost around $300 each.
We booked our entire trip in advance through a travel agent, which still exist in Australia and are actually pretty common. This is something I would recommend if you have no idea what you’re doing and don’t want to take the time to figure it out, but you can also book everything yourself if you just do enough research. Whether or not it’s through an agent, I would recommend booking as much as you can in advance. This will save you time, stress, and money in the long run. The downside is that it’s planned out for you, so you don’t have the luxury or staying in a place longer if you like it, or leaving early if you don’t. It worked well for us because all of our bus stops were booked as well as all of the hostels, so we had a full month of not having to worry about anything really. It was also during the holiday season, so we were happy to have everything sorted for us. It made the trip really stress-free.
Another benefit to booking in advance is that we pre-paid for most of the trip. This meant we only had to worry about spending money and things like food. In total, we spent $2,500 each on accommodation, buses, a flight to Cairns, and some of our bigger excursions like the Whitsundays and Fraser Island. Because we booked in advance, we saved a bit of money and reserved our spots for some of the bigger trips. We spent around $2,000 each during the trip on food, fun, and activities like renting a car for a day here and there. We tried to control our spending by cooking as much as possible, and we didn’t go out much. It’s entirely up to you, but it’s extremely hard to manage your money while you travel because there’s always something to buy and new people to meet, which usually means spending money. The more you can arrange before leaving, the better.
The point here is that it is an expensive trip. Australia isn’t cheap, and it’s really difficult to not spend money when you’re essentially on vacation for a month with nothing to do all day but spend. But if you anticipate this, it won’t be so bad.
Now that you’ve got a general overview of how to go about planning your trip, check out our overview of where to stop and what you’ll actually see. You’re in for an incredible time! As always, leave a comment or send us an email if you have any questions. We’re happy to help!