Ben Southall had the best job in the world. After a global search in 2009, he was selected from more than 34,000 people as Tourism Queensland’s ‘Island Caretaker’. The job saw Ben move into a three-bedroom beach home overlooking tropical islands and spending six months swimming and snorkelling in what most people believe to paradise…the Great Barrier Reef.
Unfortunately, for the rest of us, travelling to the Great Barrier Reef isn’t quite such a breeze. There is the soft seashell echo – or crashing reverberation – of expense, especially if you factor in flights to Australia.
But as one of the seven wonders of the natural world, it’s a must-see. So, to keep your bank balance out of the red and your mind focussed on the big blue, here is our handy guide to the Great Barrier Reef on a budget.
Why not Learn to Scuba Dive in Cairns – the best way to get up close and personal at the Great Barrier Reef!
Where to Stay
Cairns is the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef – a mecca for scuba divers, snorkelers, beach lazers and outdoor adventurers. So, book a hostel in Cairns and you will gain easy access to a range of awe-inspiring catamaran cruises making daily trips to islands of the reef.
Complete with a palm fringed pool area and hammocks, any traveller looking for a cheap place to call home will find a warm welcome at the popular Travellers Oasis. It’s a newly-renovated resort with a lush tropical garden and just a few minutes walk from the city centre and the waterfront. Dorms from €18 per person, per night and private from €22pppn.
A cheaper alternative is the Tropic Days Hostel. Run by two local Queenslanders, it is purpose-built for budget backpackers, with garden hammocks, free evening meals and traditional Aussie BBQ nights. Dorms from €8pppn and private from €12pppn.
Touring on the Cheap
For those seeking budget reef tours, you’ll find the best deals in Cairns city centre. Cruise ships and guided tours might not seem cheap, but compared to hiring a yacht or chartering a boat, you’ll get much more change back!
Day Tours: Companies like Reef Experience offer luxury day boat tours complete with free snorkelling or scuba diving and a tropical lunch for €120. Watch this space; we will shortly be posting a guide about learning to scuba dive in Cairns on a budget too!
Win a tour: You could also attempt to score the same tour for free…it’s not easy but with a little bit of cunning and a little loss of dignity, you might get a discount. Aimed squarely at travellers, Cairns nightclubs like The Woolshed host regular ‘Backpacker Competitions’, whereby after doing your best dirty dancing or eating the most chillies you could be the proud winner of everything from white water rafting to weekend reef adventures.
Get a job: The other option is to secure a ‘hostie’ gig on one of the many boats and cruise ships departing daily from Cairns. In exchange for a bit of work – meal preparation, new arrival welcomes, washing dishes and so forth – you’ll get free accommodation and a longer reef experience. To secure a job as a hostie, you will need to be a paying customer for one night before being offered the gig, although you could always ask at your hostel desk for any hot employment tips.
Share tips: If you are staying at a hostel in Cairns ask staff and other guests for their Great Barrier Reef Tips. Remember, hostels cater for budget travellers so you’ll often get sound advice from fellow travellers and staff who understand your budget limitations as well as having good local knowledge of the area and the main tourist traps.
Picking an Island
As the world’s largest reef system, the Great Barrier Reef is composed of more than 3,000 individual reefs and 900 islands stretching over a distance of 2,600 kilometres. In other words, it’s going to be pretty darn hard working out which bits to visit. But each island certainly has its own distinctive charms, and there are a few perennial favourites you won’t want to miss…
Hayman Island: Despite being quite small, Hayman’s renowned resort is one of the oldest and most popular in the Whitsundays region. Get your hiking gear on and climb Mount Carousel for breathtaking views of the Great Barrier Reef, or simply do a walking tour of the island in a few hours, making sure you take in all the secluded beaches and bays.
Heron Island: Located just off the coast of Gladstone, Heron Island boasts some of the best scuba diving and snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef. While you won’t find much in the way of nightlife, it’s the perfect place to relax in the company of those famous green turtles.
Hamilton Island: As the most heavily populated and developed island in the Whitsundays, there will be plenty to keep you occupied on Hamilton Island! More like a city than anywhere else on the Reef, you’ll find golf clubs, water sports, tours and spa centres supplementing the beautiful beach ecosystems.
Lady Elliot Island: One of only six island resorts on the actual Reef itself, Lady Elliot Island is a high-level Marine National Park Zone. Wildlife easily outnumbers guests, with thousands of nesting seabirds, live corals and a resident Manta Ray population all keeping residence. A back-to-basics theme prevails in the island accommodations…so we suggest you prepare for camping!