Great Barrier Reef on a Budget

Cheap and cheeful ways to explore

Save to my Account

It’s possible to explore the Great Barrier Reef on a budget and we’ll show you how.

Blessed with World Heritage status, the Great Barrier Reef is considered one of the world’s Seven Natural Wonders. For good reason it appears on just about every bucket list ever dreamily penned. Indeed, the Great Barrier Reef is a little like those A-list celebrities preening themselves on red carpets across the globe, paparazzi snapping at their heels. The Reef is probably the most photographed underwater world in, ahem, the world.

But, isn’t it expensive I hear you ask?

It could be if you want it to be but the truth is that is is possible to visit the Great Barrier Reef without breaking the holiday budget. Follow our tips for the best value Great Barrier Reef holiday and you might just find yourself a bargain or two.

Great Barrier Reef Seasonal Bargains

Time your visit to the Great Barrier Reef carefully and you’ll find that bargains abound. The low season coincides with the wet season, which we actually prefer to call the waterfall season. It’s when the rainforest is looking its absolute best as the entire ecosystem laps up fresh, live-sustaining cloud juice. Be aware though that tropical rain is no shrinking violet! The upside is that the south east trade winds ease between December and March. With predominantly glassy calm seas prevailing, which are ideal for those who don’t quite have their sea legs.

Many hotels offer low season rates or special low season deals, so it pays to ask when you book. Trip Advisor includes Port Douglas and Palm Cove in four of the Top 25 Bargain Hotels in Australia. Who are we to argue?

Caravan parks never really went out of fashion for budget-conscious and family travellers. Some like (multi award winning) Cairns Coconut Holiday Resort are more like adventure theme parks with enough entertainment onsite to entertain youngsters through to seniors.  Caravan parks often offer million dollar views too! Check out these beachfront beauties: Ellis Beach Oceanfront Bungalows, Palm Cove Holiday Park and Cape Tribulation Camping.

Explore more local itineraries via the RELATED links below.

Cheap air travel

Is there such a thing? Yes there is! But you need to have a plan. Skyscanner Australia has the smartest tool for finding the cheapest date to fly to anywhere in the world – once you start using this clever tool you’ll be on a plane pronto. Another sure bet to find airfare bargains is to sign up for airlines newsletters to be sure you’re first to hear about airfare sales.

It’s often cheaper to travel mid-week rather than on weekends. Avoid flying during school holidays and long weekends if you can and you’ll likely save some coin.

Travel with hand luggage only, or, if you’re a real cheapskate wear a coat with oversized pockets to stash heavy items like cameras, gadgets and all their chargers. Check with airlines in advance for carry-on weight limits.

How to snag that elusive upgrade? It never hurts to be polite and dress smartly to impress check in crew, which is when upgrades are usually determined. There’s no harm in asking either. Alternatively save your frequent flyer points and buy a points upgrade.

Free Great Barrier Reef Attractions

Those two things at the base of your legs (you probably know them as your feet) are your first class to free holiday fun. Lace up your walking shoes and sling a backpack over your shoulder laden with lunch, water and a map. You’ll likely come across interesting back streets, cafes and bars frequented by locals, tree-lined parks, riverside boardwalks or fresh produce markets to poke around in. Linger long enough to strike up conversation with a local and who knows what hidden secrets you’ll discover about their hometown.

It doesn’t cost anything to don a mask and snorkel, nor to enjoy the pleasures of a beach picnic or a free public beachfront BBQ.

History and art buffs already know about free museums and galleries. Living museums in the form of historic or iconic hotels and public buildings can provide a fascinating insight into the past. The Cairns Esplanade Lagoon is open every day and it’s absolutely free. So too are daily Active Living fitness classes as well as a 5 km run or walk every Saturday run by international organisation Parkrun.

One way vehicle relocations

Car and motorhome rental companies regularly require vehicles to be relocated to or from major hubs such as Cairns. Often for as little as $1 per day, you’ll get a very cheap roadtrip, which means you’ll arrive at the Great Barrier Reef with holiday dollars to spare.

The downside is that routes and time frame for delivery are limited so you’ll need to be flexible (see our next tip). Car companies also reserve the right to cancel your scheduled relocation if a customer suddenly makes a last minute booking of the vehicle you’ve been allocated.

Be flexible

It’s true not everyone can be flexible but it will help your chances of snatching a bargain. ‘Early bird’ airfares used to be the best way of snapping up cheap airfares but the internet changed all that so that it’s possible to find bargains aplenty if you book at the last minute. Not a tactic to recommend if you absolutely must be in a certain location on a certain date (like for a wedding or family reunion for example!), or if there’s a major event happening (like the Grand Prix or AFL final in Melbourne). Booking late is also fraught with anxiety for families as the more people to be
accommodated, the fewer bargains there are. However for singles or couples who don’t mind a bit of holiday mystery, being flexible on dates, digs or even your destination will provide maximum bargain potential.

On the other hand, booking early may offer good savings if you know well in advance where you want to travel and when, or to take advantage of favourable exchange rates.

Camp out

It’s possible to camp out on a Great Barrier Reef island for as little as $5.50 per person. Campsites are located on islands up and down the coast. In some cases you’ll have the whole island to yourself. Lady Musgrave is one of the best, particularly if you’re there during turtle nesting season. Fitzroy Island is a cracker too. See our Great Barrier Reef island camping itinerary for some of the best in the Northern region.

About the author: Fiona Harper is a Queensland-based travel writer – follow Fiona at Travel Boating Lifestyle

Have you found a bargain way to explore the Great Barrier Reef? Share your tips in the comments below!

At A Glance

Price Range:
Most Suited to:

Comments, Tips & Hints


You need to login to favorite a post.

Need to sign up? Create an account here.

Forgot your password? Reset your password here.