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1 In Australia/ Oceania

Brisbane To Cairns: The Perfect Road Trip Itinerary

australia itinerary brisbane to cairns

Australia is a very popular destination amongst backpackers and for good reasons. With its pristine beaches, endless desert, laid-back cities, and amazing coral reef, Australia should be on everybody’s bucket list. Road tripping this huge country Down Under is a fantastic opportunity to discover all it has to offer. One of the most popular itineraries is Brisbane to Cairns (or vice versa), and there’s no better way to explore the East Coast of Australia than on four wheels. From the beautiful empty beaches, and the amazing wildlife to the paradisiac islands, this road trip itinerary is one of a lifetime. Below, you will find tips and tricks on Australian road trips, as well as the perfect itinerary between Brisbane and Cairns.

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What’s the best way to road trip Australia

The best ways to road trip Australia are either by car or campervan. Traveling with your own vehicle gives you more freedom and you can also easily go to remote places. Taking the bus is also an option, but I don’t really recommend it if you’d like to explore off-the-beaten-path areas.

Car: Traveling by car is a good way to see Australia. If you’re staying for a year or more, you can buy one which will be cheaper than renting one. Traveling by car means that you’ll have to stay in hostels or campsites along the way, which can quickly become expensive. Jucy and Wicked Campers are popular car rental agencies amongst backpackers, and their prices are reasonable. 

You could also choose to relocate a car, which means moving a car from one branch to another. Relocations are a good way to travel for those on a tight budget. But there are limitations like the km allowance and the timeframe in which you have to relocate the car. For more info, you can check the website of TransferCars.

Campervan: There is no better way to see this beautiful land Down Under than in a Campervan. Traveling in a camper van is the ultimate freedom adventure. You can sleep in your car, and save money on accommodation, make your van your home for a few weeks. The most popular campervan rental agencies in Australia are Britz, Jucy, and Wicked Campers.

Bus: There are two big bus companies in Australia, Premier, and Greyhound. I took both, and they are both comfortable and have regular services. However, Premier usually has cheaper prices so make sure to check their website for cheap tickets if you want to travel Australia by bus. You can buy a hop on hop off bus pass for a specific itinerary as well. For example, you can buy a Brisbane-Cairns pass and stop as many times as you want along the way. The pass costs $258 with Premier and is valid for 6 months one way only.

Like I said, taking the bus is not the ultimate way to travel Australia but it can be done anyway and you can still enjoy your trip just as much. Lucky for you, the itinerary I have planned can be done entirely by bus (and boat since there are a few islands to visit along the way).

cairns bats Australia road trip itinerary

Road trip essentials for Australia

Australia is a very big country, and driving Down Under can actually become dangerous if you’re not prepared. Indeed, once you’re out of the city you quickly end up driving for hours and seeing nothing but the bush around you. So take these road trip essentials with you.

Sunscreen

Australia’s sun is very strong, and driving doesn’t protect you from getting sunburns. It’s essential to buy a sunscreen with a high SPF in Australia, especially if you have sensitive skin. I was personally using the Cancer Council sunscreen, which I found very good! 

Telstra Sim Card

Telstra has the best signal range in Australia. I had an Optus sim card, and it was really bad I had no signal whatsoever outside of the big cities. With Telstra, you’ll get a much better signal along the way.

Insect Repellent

There are a lot of mosquitoes in Australia, so don’t let them ruin your road trip. Make sure to carry a reliable insect repellent when you travel, especially if you go camping or hiking.

Guidebook

Guidebooks are full of interesting information and itineraries. having a travel book is a great way to get started planning your adventure. I personally love the Lonely Planets and Eyewitness Travel. 

Water Bottle

Buy a water bottle and make sure you have plenty of water on your road trip. Even if you’re not going remote, it’s safer to have loads of water with you at all times. If you’re going camping, you’ll need water to drink, but also to wash dishes and clothes. I recommend buying a water tank before you go.

Sun Hat

Sun hats are an excellent way to make sure you are covered from harmful sunlight. They are a must-have in Australia and are very good to wear when you go hiking as well.

Things to know for the Brisbane to Cairns road trip

The rainy season runs from November to April in Queensland, so it’s not the best time for a road trip as you will get rain almost daily. Also, from October to March, it’s the Stingers season in the Whitsundays, which makes it impossible to swim without a swimsuit. The best time of year to do your Brisbane to Cairns road trip is probably between May and October. The weather will be hot but chances are the sun will be shining every day.

The distance between Brisbane and Cairns is 1683 km, which can be done in 20 hours drive non-stop. You surely won’t do that, but anyway, it’s quite a long drive so I recommend you take at least 2 weeks, ideally 3 weeks, to do this road trip.

The most important thing to know when you road trip Australia is to avoid driving at night. Kangaroos jump on purpose in front of cars at night because they are drawn to car lights. So it’s safer to drive only during the daytime.

If you want tips on how to plan the perfect road trip and what gear you’ll need, check out this article below.

READ: Camping Gear Essentials For The Perfect Road Trip

Highlights of the road trip

The itinerary below is the on my boyfriend an I did when we were in Australia. We didn’t go to some super touristy spots (like Yeppoon or Bundaberg) but the places we’ve visited were all stunning. We are super slow travelers so we did this trip in 6 weeks, but obviously, you can do it in 2 or 3 weeks if you’re short on time. Also If you are planning more stops than we did, make sure to have enough time to enjoy each spot and consider the driving time because distances in Australia are quite long. It’s a huge country.

Here is a map of the East Coast of Australia with the main stops between Brisbane and Cairns. In order from Brisbane to Cairns, the stops are Noosa, Fraser Island, Great Keppel Island, Airlie Beach, Whitsundays, Magnetic Island, Mission Beach, and Cairns. Below, I explain in details what to do at each location.

map brisbane to cairns east coast australia

Noosa

Leave Brisbane early and head straight to Noosa. This beautiful resort town is a very popular surfing spot in Australia. Head to Noosa National Park and enjoy the gorgeous beaches, bush and coastal walks or sit on the beach and watch the surfers. If you’re lucky you might spot Koalas in the trees and whales, dolphins and sea turtles swimming along the coastline. Few people know that, but going inland in Noosa is also totally worth it. In Pomona, there are a few nice hiking and biking trails that lead to fantastic countryside landscapes. You could also visit the picturesque village of Eumundi and its famous markets.

Noosa inland australia brisbane to cairns itinerary

Fraser Island

Fraser Island is the world’s largest sand island. It’s very popular for its beautiful Lake McKenzie, its shipwreck on 75 Mile beach and its wild dingos. We only took a day trip to Fraser Island, which is enough to see the most popular spots but I totally recommend staying 2 or 3 days and camping there! With its rainforests and sand dunes, Fraser Island wonders will leave you speechless. The ferry to Fraser Island departs River Heads (south of Hervey Bay) every day.

Fraser Island road trip brisbane to cairns

Great Keppel Island

This island is a gem. It’s definitely not the most touristy spot in Australia, which is why I loved this island so much. Great Keppel Island is still wild and natural has only a few locals living there year long and strangely enough, has a lot of wild goats and beautiful butterflies. If you’re looking for empty beaches, bush hiking, and amazing snorkeling, Great Keppel Island is for you! We snorkeled with big rays and even saw a whale from the beach. This gorgeous island is very laid-back and is a great spot to hideaway. Boats to Great Keppel island depart every day from Yeppoon.

great Keppel island brisbane to cairns

Airlie Beach

Airlie Beach is a resort town and the getaway to the Whitsunday Islands. Whether you want to relax at the lagoon or hit the shops, you won’t get bored in Airlie. Visit the Saturday market on the waterfront for unique handmade jewelry, unique tropical souvenirs, and clothing. The outdoors enthusiasts can climb the top of the  Honeyeater Lookout Trail for an amazing view of the city and the coast.

Airlie beach lookout

Whitsundays

The Whitsundays are made of 74 islands and kilometers of white sand beaches. Sailing the beautiful Whitsundays and visiting Whitehaven beach is a must-do. Whitehaven beach is considered one of the top 5 beaches in the world, and for good reasons. Its incredibly white sand and the crystal clear water surrounding the beach is stunning. Don’t miss this gem!

Whitehaven beach

Magnetic Island

You can catch a ferry to beautiful Magnetic Island from Townsville. The beaches and bays of Magnetic Island are pristine and empty. There are many beautiful trails around the island. You should definitely visit the old fort, which has nice viewpoints on the beaches and the island. It’s also a great place to spot koalas sleeping in the trees. 

magnetic island lookout cairns to brisbane

Mission Beach

Mission Beach is a beautiful and idyllic beachfront town. Its 14kms of pristine beaches lined with palm trees makes it one of Australia’s best kept secrets. Many people go to Mission Beach to skydive above the Coral Sea or go white water rafting. It’s a fantastic little town with local markets and shops that will keep you busy. 

mission beach cairns to brisbane road trip

Cairns

Cairns is a very nice city. The main activities include swimming in the Esplanade’s lagoon, the botanic gardens, the night market and watching the bats come into the city at night (it’s actually pretty cool!). Many people choose to take a day trip from Cairns to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef. Another great day trip idea is to take the scenic train or the Skyrail to Kuranda, a small hippie village hidden in the rainforest. Once you’re up there, go to Baron Falls which are amazing especially if it has rained a lot the days before.

cairns lagoon

Where to stay along the way

If you’re not traveling in a campervan, you’ll have to stay in campings or hostels along the way. I personally love staying in hostels. They are affordable, most of them are clean and provide good facilities, and you get to meet fellow travelers. Below, you’ll find some good hostels between Brisbane and Cairns.

READ: 5 Tips To Successfully Complete Your 88 Days In Australia

Breeze Lodge Brisbane

Breeze Lodge Brisbane has everything you could possibly be looking for: clean rooms and facilities, free wifi, a rooftop lounge, free breakfast and two lounges with Netflix. Girls can choose to stay in a female only dorm if they want. This brand new hostel is located just a little bit outside the CBD of Brisbane, but you can easily reach it by bus or free ferry.

Noosa Flashpackers

This family-owned hostel located in the heart of Sunshine Beach in Noosa is very cozy and has excellent facilities. At Noosa Flashpackers, you’ll enjoy the free breakfast, free wifi, and free surfboard and bodyboard hire. This awesome hostel located only minutes from the beach also organizes weekly activities to keep you entertained during your stay.

Airlie Beach Magnums Backpackers

Located right in the heart of Airlie beach, Magnums Backpackers offers dorm rooms, deluxe cabins, and private rooms. This unique hostel is surrounded by beautiful tropical gardens, and you can even spot cockatoos in the trees. The facilities are clean, and there is a TV, games and free wifi for your convenience. It’s a nice place to stay for a couple of nights and enjoy the Whitsundays.

Cairns Dreamtime Travellers Rest

Dreamtime Travellers Rest is a small backpackers hostel made up of three bright Queenslander homes located directly opposite the Railway Station, and just minutes walk from the center of Cairns. This awesome hostel has clean dorms and private rooms, as well as 3 kitchens, a pool area, and an amazing converted campervan that you can just chill in. The friendly staff will help you book your tours, and they also organize various activities during the week like pizza and movie nights. This hostel has a very relaxed atmosphere, so I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re a party animal.

Cairns Mad Monkey Backpackers Waterfront

This very popular hostel was refurbished in 2017 and offers brand new clean rooms and facilities. Located on the Esplanade of Cairns, Mad Monkey Backpackers Waterfront provides a delicious free breakfast, free wifi, and free lockers. With its primary location, the hostel is close to all the main activities and sights of Cairns. Unlike Dreamtime Travellers Rest, this hostel is definitely more of a party hostel. So if that’s what you’re looking for, Mad Monkey’s could be a good option!

If you’re planning a great adventure in Australia, a road trip between Brisbane and Cairns is a must-do. With its outstanding beaches, incredible rainforest and laid-back cities, this fantastic land Down Under will amaze you. I hope you’ll find this road trip itinerary useful. Enjoy your road trip, and let me know in the comments where you went.

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1 Comment

  • Reply
    Clazz - An Orcadian Abroad
    January 7, 2019 at 5:22 pm

    Great post!! I did this exact trip and these were all my highlights too! Especially Noosa and Fraser Island. 🙂 We missed Great Keppel Island, I’d like to go there if we ever go back. My other highlight was Cape Hillsborough near Mackay where we saw kangaroos on the beach, and platypus nearby too!

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