Three little words to make the heart sing: Great Barrier Reef. It’s undoubtedly one of Australia’s greatest attractions yet its immense underwater treasures remain mostly hidden to the naked eye. Despite the difficulty in unlocking its secrets the Great Barrier Reef is absolutely worthy of its global reputation for extraordinary diversity and magnificence.
It helps having famous fans who can’t get enough of it. Sir David Attenborough has been smitten by the Great Barrier Reef since his initial foray in scuba gear in the 1950’s. Describing the first time he dived on the Reef he says, ‘suddenly this amazing world with a thousand things you didn’t know existed is revealed, all wonderful colours and shapes. Great shoals of fish, the reef is as rich as it comes, as varied and beautiful as it gets’.
Explore local itineraries via the RELATED links below.
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Great Barrier Reef 3 Island Getaway … Exploring from Cairns or Port Douglas
Great Barrier Reef Camping … The best northern islands for camping near Cairns
Great Barrier Reef Diving Adventure … 3 days on the Outer Reef on a liveaboard dive cruise
Great Barrier Reef on a Budget … Cheap and cheeful ways to explore
Whitsunday Islands Cruising … Where to go and what to see
Whitsunday Islands for a Weekend … Five days is better, but this is how to make the most of 48 hours
Whitsunday Islands in a Week … Prepare your sea legs!
Whitsundays: Top 10 Family Activities … Entertaining all ages with top things to see and do
Entertainer Barry Humphries – best known for his alter-ego Dame Edna Everage – may have put it best when he described the Great Barrier Reef as ‘an enormous piece of costume jewellery clinging to the bosom of Australia’.
But perhaps the Reef’s biggest fans are the millions of travellers who visit the Queensland coast each year intent on exploring it for themselves. Even those who don’t swim, dive or snorkel are enchanted by the Reef’s charms, eagerly boarding boats, float planes, helicopters or kayaks, SUP boards or surf boards even, in order to get a piece of the Great Barrier Reef action. The Great Barrier Reef is the sort of destination that inspires travellers to cast aside hesitations, doubts and seasickness in order to find out what the fuss is all about. We promise you the fuss is well-deserved. The Great Barrier Reef will knock your socks off!
As the Great Barrier Reef stretches 2,300 km north to south along the Queensland coast, the best time depends on which part of the Reef you’re planning on visiting. It also depends on what you’re planning on doing once you get there. Snorkelling or scuba diving? Flop and drop? Sunlounge meditation? Island getaway or mainland rainforest escapade? Sailing or windsurfing? Beachcombing or jungle surfing?
For example, if you’re visiting the Southern Great Barrier Reef (where you’ll find Lady Elliot Island, Heron Island or the Capricornia Cays National Park), go in summer (approx November to March) for warm days and warm water temperatures perfect for snorkelling and scuba diving. Often the winds are lightest during this period too so seas are generally calm. The southern Great Barrier Reef can still be fabulous during the colder months, but visiting remote islands at approx 23 degrees South can entail a long boat trip that may not suit the seasickness-inclined. But that’s what light aircraft and helicopters are for!
Conversely the Northern Great Barrier Reef is more appealing during winter (also known as the dry season), when the days are warm, humidity is low and pesky marine stingers have vacated the ocean for their own winter holiday getaway elsewhere.
From around April to November (the dry season) the prevailing winds on the east coast of Queensland are south east tradewinds. They will typically blow from mid-morning to late afternoon, generally up to around 25 knots (approx 45kmh). Sailors love these winds! Those prone to seasickness aren’t so enamored as the winds dictate sea state. Scuba divers and snorkellers are immune to winds – once you’re in the water within a protected lagoon it matters little what the sea state is.
North Queensland is susceptible to tropical cyclones which typically make their presence known any time between November and March, coinciding with the wet season. Sometimes they arrive with ferocity, other times they barely raise enough puff to blow out a candle. Visiting during the wet season has its definite advantages.
Tropical cyclones aside, winds are generally light or non-existent, meaning the seas are calm. This is when you get those glassy mirror-like sea conditions where a turtle popping its head above the surface can be spotted from a hundred metres. It can also be very wet with high humidity. The upside is that the rainforest is at its best with waterfalls, creeks and streams an enticing alternative to ocean swimming. Marine stingers invade northern waters during the wet season requiring the need for swimmers, snorkellers and scuba divers to wear full body lycra suits. With the fashion police on holidays, this is not the time to visit if you’re embarrassed at looking like a Teletubby.
As long as you can! This is a tough question to answer. The Great Barrier Reef can be ‘done’ in a weekend if you fly to an island such as Hamilton, Lady Elliot or Lizard Island. But really, you’ll only be scratching the surface. That’s like spending an hour with the Mona Lisa and saying you’ve ‘done’ France. The Reef itself is so huge you could spend a lifetime exploring it and still not cover it all.
The best approach time-wise for planning a Great Barrier Reef holiday is to break it into a manageable holiday (or many holidays if you’ve got the time). Deciding which region you’re going to visit, Northern, Southern or Whitsundays, will make the planning process a whole lot easier.
High and Low seasons can be a little ambiguous on the Great Barrier Reef simply because it is so vast. The further north you travel in Queensland the more tropical the seasons become.
In the Northern region (north of the Whitsundays), the Wet and Dry seasons tend to influence High and Low seasons. As a rough guide, the Wet season (approx Nov to Mar) is the Low season, except during the Christmas/New Year period when it is the High season. The best time of year in the north is during winter (which is the Dry season), and this is when hotel and tour operators generally charge the highest prices. Bargain hunters should look at February for the cheapest prices.
In the Southern region it may (or may not!) be the opposite. South of the Whitsundays the winter season doesn’t attract the tropical temperatures of the north. Truth be known the Southern region is good all year round which is why it’s hard to pinpoint High and Low seasons. Generally, it’s High season over the summer (approx Nov to Mar) and there or may not be bargains to be had during winter. It’s a vague assessment we know but that’s how it works in this part of the world – sorry!
In the Whitsundays, which has a bet either way when it comes to climate and High and Low seasons, it’s equally ambiguous. High season generally occurs year round as it’s such an ‘in demand’ region. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t bargains to be had – contact individual hotel and tour operators to find out the best deals.
Tropical North Queensland enjoys enjoy a pleasant warm climate year round. There are generally two seasons in the Tropics – ‘the green (otherwise known as the wet)’ and ‘the dry’ seasons. The Green/Wet season is generally hot and humid with the first rains usually arriving around November with the season endings around April. Average Green/Wet season temperatures range from min 22°C-max 31°C (72-88F). The Dry season (May-October) is mild subtropical climate with temperatures ranging from 18-26°C (65-79F). Cairns Highlands and the Atherton Tablelands, being at a higher altitude, are generally a few degrees cooler than on the coast.
The coolest months in the tropics are June-July with temperatures ranging from min 17°C- max 26°C (63-79F) and also the season with the least rainfall. Daylight hours are not significantly reduced in winter, so outdoors activities reign all year round. Temperatures start to warm up in August-October with min 19°C – max 28°C (66-83F), but the sunny days are cooled with a refreshing sea breeze. The water temperature of the Great Barrier Reef reaches around 23°C (74F) during this period.
Queensland Holidays include:
May (1st weekend): Labour Day
Show Holidays are observed in many country regions – check with the local tourism body for dates.
National Holidays include:
January (1st): New Year’s Day
January (26): Australia Day
March/April: Good Friday and Easter Monday
April (25): Anzac Day
December (25th): Christmas Day
December (26th): Boxing Day
On national public holidays, banks, post offices and liquor outlets may be closed or open for limited hours. There are also be additional holidays in each state or territory.
To check the local time in Queensland, click here.
Australian Eastern Standard Time (AEST) covers Queensland, New South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory, Victoria, and Tasmania. Central Standard Time (CST) is used in the Northern Territory and South Australia, and Western Standard Time (WST) is the standard in Western Australia. When it’s noon in New South Wales, the ACT, Victoria, Queensland, and Tasmania, it’s 11:30am in South Australia and the Northern Territory, and 10am in Western Australia.
All states except Queensland, the Northern Territory, and Western Australia observe Daylight Saving Time (DST) during spring and summer. At 2AM on the first Sunday in October clocks are advanced one hour. On the first Sunday in April at 2AM, clocks shift back one hour to standard time. However, not all states switch over to daylight saving on the same day or in the same week, so it pays to check if you are travelling at these times.
Smart casual clothing is required in most resorts, hotels, restaurants and bars. For the evenings something more formal will be useful. Pack cool, clothing that will protect you from the sun, including a hat, sunglasses and water resistant sunscreen. Bring at least one swimsuit, a light-weight long sleeve shirt, sandals or protective shoes if your itinerary includes beach or islands. A comfortable wind-proof jacket may be useful after reef/water activities.
This clothing is suitable for most of the year, although you may want to add a jacket or sweater for the winter months June-August, particularly when touring the Cairns Highlands/Atherton Tablelands and mountainous area. Comfortable walking shoes are recommended for everyday wear and sturdy enclosed shoes or hiking boots with a good sole are a must when walking or hiking in the National Parks. A light rain jacket and a small umbrella are useful for travel in the Green season.
Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.
Price ranges are quoted in $AU.
See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $20 per person
$$ => Tickets $20-70 per person
$$$ => Tickets $70 per person
$ => Rooms less than $200 for a double
$$ => Rooms $205-300 for a double
$$$ => Rooms $300 for a double
$ => $1-$35 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$ => $35-$80 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$$ => $80 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $20 per person
$$ => Tickets $20-$50 per person
$$$ => Tickets $50 per person
Fly the Friendly Skies
Airfares are a fickle thing. When you need it to be low, it’s high. And when prices dip, what happens? You can’t get off work to travel. Sigh.
But you can get notifications from companies like Kayak, which will email you when airfares drop. Type your destination and the dates you are watching and boom, when there’s a deal, you’ll hear about it immediately via your inbox.
Sites like Momondo also display prices for multiple airlines, so you can compare rates without visiting individual airline sites.
That said, there is an advantage to visiting an individual airline’s site. Why? Because some of their really great deals don’t show up on the aggregator airfare sites. Most airlines share limited-time, super-specials via their Facebook pages or email blasts. So it pays to be their ‘friend’ or subscribe to their e-mailings.
Have Car, Will Travel
Like airlines, car rental rates are all over the map. Companies like Expedia and Hotwire offer comparison price shopping, and the major companies like Hertz, Budget, Avis and Europcar all operate around Australia, alongside smaller local companies that are worth investigating.
There are also name-your-own-price sites, like Priceline, where you tell ‘em what you want to pay and they hook you up with a car rental company who can fit the bill. There are some great deals here, if you are not too picky about the make and model of your rental.
Ride-sharing company Uber is relatively new to Australia and is currently under scrutiny by state governments where it operates. It currently operates in Sydney, Canberra (from Oct 30), Melbourne, the Mornington Peninsula and Geelong in Victoria, Adelaide, Perth, Brisbane and the Gold Coast.
Rides are ordered through a smart phone app, it’s convenient because no money changes hands (payment is made through the app) and it’s usually cheaper than a taxi. Another bonus? After requesting a ride, you can see where the driver is on a map, so you know that they are on their way and how long it will be. Try that with a cab.
Hopefully, your trip to Australia goes without a glitch. But what if an unexpected situation arises? Will you lose the money you invested in the trip? Will you need quick cash to cover sudden costs?
Travel insurance policies are meant to cover these unexpected costs and assist you when problems arise. The fee is typically based on the cost of the trip and the age of the traveler.
Most travel insurance providers offer comprehensive coverage that usually includes protection for the following common events:
Trip Cancellation — About 40 percent of all claims fall in this category.
Medical —Whether you break a leg or need a blood transfusion, you will likely incur costs far higher than you might pay in other nations. And what if you have an accident that requires transport to a major medical center? Air ambulances alone could set you back $15,000 to $30,000.
Trip Interruption — For example, if you become ill during your trip or if someone at home gets sick, and you have to abandon a tour. The insurer will often pay up to 150% of the cost of your trip to get you home.
Travel Delay — Insurance usually covers incidentals like meals and overnight lodging while you wait to travel home.
Baggage — Insurance will typically cover lost and mishandled baggage.
Some insurance companies allow you to purchase a policy that allows you to cancel for any reason. This may cost more (often 10% or more), but it is worthwhile for certain travelers.
Do I need travel insurance?
If your trip costs $4,000 to $6,000 (or more), it’s probably a good idea. Your age and health are important factors. Standard medical and travel insurance is advisable for travel to Australia. Divers including the Great Barrier Reef or other Australian diving destinations should also ensure they have the appropriate insurance.
How do I choose an insurance provider?
Do your homework — check around.
The largest insurers in the U.S. include Travel Guard, Allianz and CSA Travel Protection. Smaller reputable companies include Berkley, Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, Travel Insured International and Travelex. You may also find deals through aggregates like Squaremouth and InsureMyTrip.
Many airlines and travel companies also offer travel insurance when you book your flight (often contracted with the above major players).
If you have pre-existing health conditions — Many policies have exclusion policies if you have a pre-existing medical condition. But companies also offer waivers that overwrite the exclusion if you purchase the policy within a certain time frame of paying for your trip (e.g., within 24 hours of buying your cruise package). Again, it’s best to check the fine print.
Credit card insurance — If you buy your airfare or trip with a credit card, you may be partially covered by the credit card’s issuing bank. Check directly with the company to find out exactly what’s covered, as many have “stripped down” coverage and restrictions.
The travel insurance business is expanding and evolving rapidly. As “shared space” lodging options like VRBO, Airbnb and Homeaway become more popular in the travel and leisure market, so does the need for insurance for both property owners and travelers.
Australian dollars come in $1 and $2 coins, and $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 notes. Each is a different colour, so they are easy to tell apart. Other coins are 5 cents, 10 cents, 20 cents and 50 cents. The $1 and $2 coins are gold, all the others are silver.
Prices sometimes end in a variant of 1 or 2 cents (for example, 52 cents or $1.78), a relic from the days before 1-cent and 2-cent pieces were phased out. In these cases, prices are rounded to the nearest 5 cents, so 52 cents rounds down to 50 cents, and 78 cents rounds up to 80 cents.
Tipping is always appreciated, but is not widely practiced or expected in Australia. It is usual to tip around 10% to 15% or round up to the nearest A$10 for a substantial meal in a restaurant, but certainly not mandatory. Some taxi passengers round up to the nearest round figure in a cab, but it’s okay to insist on every bit of change back. Tipping hotel porters and housemaids is sometimes done, but no one tips bar staff, barbers, massage therapists and spa employees or hairdressers.
Invariably, there are incidental costs associated with being on the road. Make sure to budget between $10 and $40 per day for batteries, lost phone chargers, bug repellent, headache medicine, sunburn relief and other personal items you might have forgotten. If you’re traveling with kids, consider the snack budget. Local grocery and chemist shops (pharmacies/drugstores) will be cheaper than tourist shops for all of the above.
Lying offshore from Australia’s Queensland coast, the location of the actual Reefs vary from a few km offshore to many hundreds of km. Some islands, like Morris Island in the far north, are little more than a strip of finely crushed coral sand, grimly bound together by the roots of a solitary palm tree. Others, like vast Hinchinbrook Island, a lofty 1100m above the mangroves, could easily be mistaken for mist draped southern Tasmanian wilderness, were it not for the shimmering tropical heat.
Stretching 2300 km from Bundaberg in the south, to Torres Strait in the north, and anywhere up to 250 km at its widest point, mainland towns mark the ‘jumping off’ points to get to the Great Barrier Reef.
We’ve broken up the Great Barrier into three sections to help make it easier to get your bearings.
This southern region starts at Bundaberg, northwards to mainland Yeppoon, offshore to Prudhoe Island east of Mackay, with all the islands and reef in between. Other southern mainland towns include Gladstone, Agnes Waters & 1770.
Fly into Bundaberg or Gladstone airports which have scheduled air services.
The Whitsundays region includes mainland towns from Mackay in the south through to Airlie Beach (Proserpine Airport), Shute Harbour and Bowen in the north. Islands include the 74 islands of the Whitsundays (otherwise known as the Cumberland Group) as well as the outer reefs grouped collectively under Whitsundays outer reef. Airlie Beach is the indisputable hub of the Whitsunday Islands.
Fly into Airlie Beach (Proserpine Airport), Mackay or Hamilton Island airports which have schedules air services.
The sorthern region begins at mainland Townsville, continuing northwards beyond Cape York into Torres Strait, including all the offshore islands and reefs between Magnetic and Poruma Islands. Other mainland towns include Cardwell, Mission Beach, Innisfail, Ingham, Cairns, Port Douglas, Cape Tribulation and Cooktown.
Fly into Townsville, Cairns (international airport) or Horn Island (Torres Strait) which have scheduled air services.
Fly into Cairns International Airport which has domestic and international connections from global and domestic airlines.
Cairns is well serviced for self-drive travellers via the Bruce Highway from Brisbane or via the Savannah Way which links Cairns ultimately with Broome in Western Australia. Cairns is also the gateway for self-drive 4WD adventures to Cape York. All major car and campervan rental companies have offices in Cairns.
The Cairns Cruise Terminal is located downtown and is utilised by cruise liners who regularly call into Cairns harbour year round. The adjacent Cairns Marlin Marina is the marine hub for charter boats exploring the Great Barrier Reef on day trips or extended multi-day cruises.
Queensland Rail operates regular long distance rail services operating between Cairns and Brisbane. Board the Spirit of Queensland with jumping off points to access the Great Barrier Reef at Bundaberg, Yeppoon, Mackay, Proserpine (Whitsundays), Townsville and Cairns.
Board the Tilt Train between Brisbane and Bundaberg to access the Southern region of the Great Barrier Reef.