Welcome to the ultimate guide to backpacking the east coast of Australia! Just about everyone who visits Australia wants to travel up the east coast to see the world-famous cities, islands and beach towns. I spent an incredible 6 weeks visiting just about every spot up the coast and wanted to share tips, photos and basically everything I wish I knew beforehand :). I have included recommendations for hostels, things to do, and how to get around. Hopefully you find it helpful if you’re planning a visit or just want to see what I’ve been up to lately!
Before you begin your east coast adventure, there are a few important things to consider:
How to travel: Bus vs. car/van
I’d say the majority of the people I met on the east coast booked a hop-on-hop-off bus package from Sydney to Cairns for somewhere between $400 and $600 from a travel agency. After talking to plenty of people who have done the east coast, I decided not to take the bus (which are pretty awful from what I hear) and just bum rides off people to make my way north. I chose this option because I had no time limit or plan and I was by myself, so I had ultimate flexibility. (No mom, I didn’t actually hitch hike) I would highly recommend this option no matter what season you travel in because so many people have cars or vans and want to share fuel costs. It’s also a great way to meet people along the way!
Winging it vs. booking in advance vs. travel agency package
Depends. Depending on the season you are traveling in, what you want to do and how particular you are on tours and hostels, you may want to book a package to save some money or totally wing it. To no surprise to those who know me, I decided to wing it, which was the perfect option to me. The vast majority of people I met on the east coast had tours or packages booked in advance, and people seemed to be shocked that I didn’t plan anything or buy a hop-on-hop-off bus pass. Here are some pros and cons for both:
Booking a package:
Pros- could save money by booking with an agency and getting a discount by staying at the same hostel chain, easy to book and don’t need to worry about anything along the way, some packages offer some flexibility with how long you can stay in each place
Cons- easy to get ripped off, can’t choose individual hostels or change plans, no flexibility to switch tour companies for Fraser Island or the Whitsundays, pressure to do everything at a certain pace, could waste money if you choose to opt out of some activities that are included
Pros- gives you ultimate freedom, can travel with other people you meet and adjust plans along the way, can stay longer or shorter in certain places, can choose which hostels you want to stay in, can book whatever tours/activities you want and not be forced into booking with certain companies
Cons- you would not be able to do wing it during peak season (December-February) because everything gets booked up so quickly, you may not get your #1 choice in hostel or tour dates if they are already booked, harder to predict your budget
How much time: I personally spent 6 weeks on the east coast and thought that was perfect, but just know it is very expensive. If you are limited on time or money, I would recommend a minimum of 4-5 weeks if you really want to see the east coast. People who only have two weeks often feel rushed and only get to see a few of the highlights, but the main issue is how much time you’d be spending traveling (unless you fly from place to place).
Now to the fun stuff… here are all of the AMAZING stops along the east coast! I traveled from Sydney to Cairns but it could easily be done in the opposite direction :).
Sydney- 2-3 days
Sydney is an absolute must for Australia! Though I think there are much better places to live and visit (cough, Melbourne, cough), it is definitely worth spending at least a few days here.
Where to stay: I stayed with a friend but everyone recommends Wake Up! Hostel
What to do: See the main sites like the Opera House, Bondi Beach, etc., enjoy the nightlife, then leave! (However, I am coming from a very biased former Melbourne resident perspective…. Melbourne over Sydney forever!) There are plenty of blog posts out there about Sydney from people who spent more time there than I did (only a week and a half total), so give it a quick Google for more info!
Jervis Bay- 3-4 days
Jervis Bay is a few hours south of Sydney and unfortunately, is not often visited by backpackers. Trust me when I say this place is absolute PARADISE! Hyams Beach is famous for having the whitest sand in the world and is totally gorgeous. Jervis Bay is a unique area that offers the amazing beauty of Australia without the crowds of other popular spots.
Where to stay: Accommodation in Jervis Bay can be difficult and I’m not sure if there are any hostels in the area (I could be wrong!). Luckily for me, I was visiting a friend I met in the Philippines (the infamous Australian “grandma” for anyone who I’ve told about her!) and she let me stay with her, which was perfect. I know a few other people who have stayed in an AirBnb type of place, but the best option would probably be to camp or have a campervan.
What to do: Visit the incredible national parks and forests right along the ocean, relax at the beach and enjoy the beauty of the area. There is plenty to explore if you are a beach and nature lover, but you definitely need a car!
Port Macquarie- 2-3 days
Port Macquarie is often skipped by people who head straight to Byron Bay from Sydney, but I was so glad I stopped here to break up the drive!
Where to stay: Port Macquarie Backpackers! This small hostel with awesome staff is a great place to feel welcomed and meet other travelers heading up the coast.
What to do: Visit the Koala hospital, see the wild kangaroos, go on the coastal walk, relax at the beach, and get involved with some water sports!
Coffs Harbour- 2-3 days
Coffs Harbour is another spot often skipped by backpackers heading to Byron, but again, I am SO glad I stopped here!
Where to stay: Aussitel Hostel! This is one of my favorite hostels on the east coast! They have activities planned every day, an awesome atmosphere especially at night, and super helpful and social staff.
What to do: Go on the daily activities with the hostel, go kayaking/SUP on the creek, check out some local beaches, bushwalking/hiking, lookout spots in the forest, kangaroo tour, and of course, check out the famous Coffs Harbour Big Banana!
Byron Bay- 5-7 days
Do. Not. Miss. This. Byron is at the top of everyone’s list for favorite spots in Australia, and for good reason! It’s a cute surf town with awesome food, nightlife, and activities. Stay as long as you can here!
Where to stay: There are a ton of awesome hostels in Byron, and I ended up going with Cape Byron YHA which is AWESOME. I had the best time and met some of my favorite travel mates here! Plus, there’s no hostel bar so you can bring your own alcohol on the premises :). Other options: Aquarius (biggest party hostel next door to Cape Byron), Arts Factory (nature lovers and hippies unite!), or really any of the popular beach hostels. I haven’t heard a bad thing about any hostel in Byron!
What to do: Visit the beaches, go on the lighthouse walk and stand on the most easterly point of Australia, enjoy the nightlife (Two words: Cheeky Monkeys), great food (Chihuahua tacos are the ONLY authentic Mexican food I have found in Australia) and awesome vibes. If you want to get adventurous you can also go hang gliding or paragliding!
Surfers Paradise/Gold Coast- 5-7 days
Surfers Paradise: Vegas meets Miami meets Australia. To be honest, people typically either love or hate Surfers, depending on their interests. The area is known for being superficial and very touristy, which it is, but it’s definitely worth a visit. I highly recommend timing your visit from Thursday to Monday if you are interested in the nightlife!
Where to stay: Down Under Hostel- awesome location, helpful staff, best bar and lounge area. The most popular hostel is probably BUNK, which was booked when I was there.
What to do: The Gold Coast theme parks are super popular and a main attraction in the area. As a huge fan of waterparks and roller coasters, I couldn’t miss Wet n’ Wild and Movie World. Top tip: buy a season pass for all the parks for $90, or if you want to waste some money, spend $80 to go to one park for one day :). We even sold our passes to travelers we met later on headed south for $20- score! Other than theme parks, the Gold Coast is known for surfing, beaches, and nightlife. The clubs in Surfers Paradise can be pretty crazy and the pub crawl is definitely worth doing on a Wednesday or Saturday. Look out for deals on drinks at different venues each day of the week, especially for girls! If you want to see some amazing views, head to Skypoint, which is 77 floors high, and looks amazing at sunset. If you have time, I’ve been told Burleigh Heads is worth checking out as well!
Brisbane- 2 days
Brisbane, aka Bris-Vegas, is a city almost every backpacker visits. Coming from a biased Melbournian perspective, I didn’t really enjoy Brisbane if I’m being totally honest. It seemed like just another city, but a smaller version of Melbourne or Sydney with less culture and no beaches. Brisbane is mostly known for nightlife, but if you’re not interested in that, it may even be worth skipping if you’re pressed for time. (Brisbane lovers, please prove me wrong and comment to tell me what I missed out on!)
Where to stay: Nomads Hostel- awesome location, helpful travel desk and job desk, tons of people everywhere, right above the most popular backpacker bar (Down Under Bar, also has yummy, reasonably priced food with a 20% discount with your hostel room card). There is also a Red Cross next door and I highly recommend giving blood if you’re eligible. It’s super easy and goes a long way to help save lives :).
What to do: Walk around Southbank, see the famous Brisbane sign at night, do some shopping, visit the Mount Coot-tha viewpoint, visit Kangaroo point, relax at the manmade beach, take a ferry ride around the river, or visit the famous Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary. For a fun night out, Down Under Bar is the best backpacker bar with a different theme every night- don’t miss it!
Noosa- 3 days
Noosa is a ritzy holiday surf town with lots of shopping and food, and absolutely worth a visit!
Where to stay: Nomads has a good location with a fun bar, but I would actually recommend Halse Lodge YHA, which is closer to the beach and has a better atmosphere (it was booked when I was there!).
What to do: Go on a few of the nature walks around the national park, check out the beach and surf if you can, and sign up for an everglades kayaking tour (I didn’t do this myself but heard good things).
Rainbow Beach/Fraser Island- 5 days
Rainbow Beach is the gateway to Fraser Island (an absolute MUST), and most stay here for one night before and after going to Fraser Island. To be honest, Rainbow Beach itself doesn’t have too much to offer, but Dingos Hostel is awesome!
Where to stay: Dingo Backpackers Resort is the best in my opinion, but basically your options are either here or Pippie’s next door.
What to do: Other than seeing Carlo Sand Blow (giant sand dune) for sunset, there really isn’t much to do in Rainbow Beach other than anxiously await your Fraser trip J. Fraser Island is absolutely incredible and I had one of the best experiences on the east coast here. This is the largest sand island in the world and is popular for backpackers, families on holiday, and locals alike. Driving a 4×4 on the sand is a unique experience that should not be missed, not to mention the amazing beaches, lakes, creeks, rainforests, lookouts, and the famous Maheno shipwreck. I have never seen as many stars in my LIFE as I did on Fraser and will never forget the bioluminescent plankton and dingoes all over the island.
I highly recommend Dropbear Adventures’ 3-day tag-along 4×4 tour, which is absolutely the best!! Dingos is the main tour and they churn out up to 100 people per day on their tours. Most people staying at Dingos hostel went with them, but I talked to someone who used to work there and she actually said she would go with Dropbear over Dingos any day! I did quite a bit of research and asking around, and Dropbear is consistently rated the top Fraser tour out of MANY!
1770- 1-2 days
This fun town is named after the year Captain Cook discovered it, so yes, the name is actually a number! Most people stop here for the night to break up the long drive between Rainbow Beach and Airlie Beach, but I would consider staying an extra day or two if you have time!
Where to stay: Cool Bananas or Southern Cross Hostels- both are unique and I highly recommended!
What to do: See kangaroos in the wild or at the sanctuary, go on the infamous Scooteroo tour (ride a real chopper on a 3 hour tour around the area for about $85AUD), or get in some surfing.
Airlie Beach/Whitsundays- 5 days
Airlie Beach is the gateway to the Whitsunday Islands, and most backpackers stay there a night before and a night after their tour. After the devastation of Cyclone Debbie in March, Airlie Beach has surprisingly made a great comeback.
Where to stay: The main hostels people stay at in Airlie Beach are Nomads/Base, Magnums and YHA. I highly recommend Nomads/Base because Shed Bar is awesome and it’s a huge hostel with a great atmosphere :).
What to do: I was surprised that the nightlife in Airlie Beach is actually super fun and there were a couple cool restaurants on the main strip. The obvious activity in the area is go see the world famous Whitsunday Islands! There are hundreds of boat tours leaving from Airlie Beach and the sheer number of options can be overwhelming, so I’d consider visiting a travel agency to help you out with recommendations. As for what I did, I can say that the Atlantic Clipper is the biggest, craziest, and best party boat on the Whitsundays. You can book it or their partner boat, New Horizon (smaller, less of a party) through True Blue Sailing or any travel agency. There are a TON of Whitsunday party boat tours, but I’ve heard good things about Spank Me and Tongarra. I can’t really speak for the more relaxed or smaller boats, but there are plenty of travel agencies out there (Cheap Az Travel, Peterpan’s, Mad Travel, etc.) that can help you out if you aren’t looking for a party (but you should :)).
Townsville- 1-2 days
Townsville is often overlooked because it’s mainly known for being the mainland town to get you to Magnetic Island. However, if you have time, I would stay for at least a night to check it out!
Where to stay: Rambutan Hostel in Townsville is probably one of the nicest budget hostels in Australia- no joke! Most only stay a night or two in Townsville before heading to Magnetic Island, but believe me when I say this place is worth a stay. What budget hostel has a pool with cabanas?!
What to do: There are a few things to do in the surrounding areas, but you don’t necessarily need to stay in Townsville to do them. The most popular being the Billabong Sanctuary and sunset at Castle Hill. A lot of people who were on a tight schedule skipped Townsville and caught the first ferry to Magnetic Island when they arrived from Airlie.
Magnetic Island- 2-3 days
Magnetic Island is a unique gem in northern Queensland, and is luckily only a 25 minute ferry ride from Townsville. It’s actually named after the apparent magnetic effect the island had on Captain Cook’s compass when he was exploring in 1770. I would say two or three nights on Maggie is plenty, though many just stay for one. I loved that this island was full of pine trees and huge boulders, reminding me of Yosemite in California, but is situated in tropical northern Queensland!
Where to stay: The main two hostels on Maggie Island are Base and YHA, Base being the more popular and more social hostel. If you’re looking for a good party, this is definitely where you want to be. Not to mention the INCREDIBLE ocean view I had from my bed in my 8-bed dorm!
What to do: The Forts walk to see an old military fort at the top of the island with wild koalas, rent a topless “Barbie” car to explore the island, visit the many beaches, feeding the wild wallabies, go snorkeling/diving, and watch a beautiful sunset.
Mission Beach- 1-2 days (if skydiving)
I personally skipped Mission Beach because I was told that there isn’t much to do there except the world famous skydiving, which I wasn’t planning on doing. This is definitely the most popular spot to skydive in Australia, mostly because you get to land on the beach!
Cairns- 5-6 days
Most backpackers either start or end their east coast journey in Cairns, which is known for the many activities in the surrounding areas and oh yeah….the GREAT BARRIER REEF!
Where to stay: Gilligan’s is the best hostel and bar in Cairns and is absolutely MASSIVE! Awesome pool, perfect location, $4 dinner specials, tons of people and a great atmosphere- what else do you need?
What to do: Visit the man-made lagoon for a swim and live music, check out the Cairns night market, visit the many waterfalls around the area (either with Uncle Brian’s Tour or your own car), go diving or snorkeling at the GBR, visit the botanical gardens, and go white water rafting, sky diving or bungy jumping! Top tip: there are TONS of drink specials at Gilligan’s every day, but particularly on the weekends, so I highly recommend coming for Friday and Saturday night when girls drink for free!
Food: Eating out in Australia is extremely expensive, so shop at Coles or Aldi (Woolworths if you can’t find the other two) and take advantage of hostel kitchens! Food, alcohol and accommodation are easily the most expensive parts about traveling in Australia, so if you can cut down on the cost of meals, it will really help out. As far as alcohol goes, cheap wine (goon or bottles) is probably going to be your best bet. I don’t think I ever saw any backpackers drinking hard alcohol outside of a bar or club! Wine, beer or cider is definitely the way to go. Bonus tip: McDonald’s has $1 frozen Cokes and $0.60 ice cream cones!
How much to budget: You can expect $30 per night on average for a basic hostel bed during shoulder season, so I would assume these prices would go up during peak season (December-February) and during holidays/festivals. The other options besides hostels are to get a campervan, go camping or utilize Couchsurfing. Food, activities and alcohol will also greatly affect your budget as well. To give you a basic idea, I spent a little over $3,000AUD, but I know people who spent a LOT more in 6 weeks.
Bonus tip: Make sure to look out for hostels with their own bar. If this is the case, you will not be allowed to bring alcohol into the hostel due to liquor license laws, therefore you will be forced to spend your money at the bar there or risk getting caught with hefty fines if you sneak it in. If you’re looking to party for cheap, definitely stay at hostels that will allow you to BYO.
Wifi: I highly recommend getting an Australian SIM card if you weren’t planning on it already. Relying on hostel Wifi is pretty much impossible so I would make sure to get plenty of data so you don’t have to worry about it! Some hostels have free Wifi in reception during certain hours and allow you to purchase a better Wifi service if you want, while some don’t offer it at all. Most of the time, it was unreliable, so just be prepared with your own data! Or just enjoy the moment and avoid being on your phone :).
That’s all, folks! I hope this massive guide has been helpful for those who are planning a trip to Australia or know someone who is! Feel free to pass it along to anyone you think mind find it useful and don’t forget to leave a comment with feedback or anything I missed!
After an incredible whirlwind of 6 months in Australia, it’s back to Southeast Asia for me!