Everything you need to know for the perfect East Coast Australia Road Trip!
The East Coast of Australia is the most popular route for backpacking and traveling Oz and for good reason – it offers so much to see and do! Australia often feels like it was just made for road trips and nothing beats the thrill of the open road and the freedom of your own set of wheels to explore Australia. An East Coast Australia road trip will give you a great taste of the best Australia has to offer from cosmopolitan cities, iconic sites, and world class natural wonders, pristine beaches and ancient rainforests and driving yourself will allow you to get immersed in the scenery more and take off beat diversions whenever you want.
I’ve driven this route a couple of times so here are my top tips and my perfect itinerary for road tripping East Coast Australia.
Quick Tips for Planning your East Coast Australia Road Trip
Best time to travel East Coast Australia
Anytime is good but if it’s winter (June – August) then it may be a bit cold sleeping in a campervan in Southern Australia but perfect weather in QLD. In Summer watch out for stingers and monsoon rains in North Queensland.
How long does it take to travel East Coast Australia?
Many people don’t realise just how huge Australia is. The distance between Cairns and Melbourne on the coastal route is over 3,500km which is about 40 hours of solid driving time, you could drive it in a week but that wouldn’t leave hardly any time at all to see or do anything on the way.
I would recommend a minimum of 2 weeks but a month is much better. You could tick off the main sights in 2 weeks but traveling slow and taking the time to discover those off the beaten track surprises, meet people and really soak up the place always leads to be better travel experience. If you have more time a month or even more is much better.
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Hiring a Campervan in Australia
I’ve done this trip by Greyhound bus and by campervan and the best way to travel Australia is undoubtedly by campervan. If your planning on doing an epic road trip like this its handy to rent the campervan in one city and arrange to drop it off in a different city (usually for extra cost).
To find the best campervan hire deals I use DriveNow.com.au this is the best site for comparing campervan rental prices from all the leading rental companies so you can make sure you’re getting the best price. If your flexible then also check out how you can rent a campervan for only $1 per day by scoring a relocation deal. But usually you only get a week so you have to rush a bit (I’ve done it but you won’t get to see everything)
I spent at least $500 on fuel each time I’ve done an East Coast Australia road trip but a campervan is still an affordable way to travel Australia as it also saves you money on accommodation, tours and food. If you can’t afford a campervan then cheaper options are a station wagon – chuck a mattress in the back or a car and tent.
However, contrary to popular belief you can’t just camp up and sleep anywhere. I used the Camps Australia Wide book to find free campsites all down the East Coast. It lists the facilities you can find at each campsite and rest stop and also lists low cost campsites as well as more expensive camping resorts with swimming pools and loads of facilities. I’m not going to list all the campsite because you’ll need to maps to find them. The Camps book is really useful as it’s also a map and contains points of interest and as there can be limited mobile internet reception outside of the towns the book is a really value resource for road tripping Australia on a budget. You can buy it here on Amazon. I also used the Lonely Planet East Coast Australia GuideBook – its packed with loads of useful maps, tips, info and things to do.
There are also many low cost backpacker hostels, some of which will let you park up for the night and use the facilities for a small fee. If you would rather stay in hostels then check out my recommendations for the best backpacker hostels in Australia here.
If you can’t drive you can get the Greyhound bus to the major destinations or take a tour (check out my post on backpacking East Coast Australia here) Also see my Australia money saving tips and tips for traveling Australia by campervan here.
If you plan on traveling Australia for longer (perhaps on a working holiday visa) then buying a campervan offers the ultimate freedom and flexibility and can be a really cost effective way to explore Oz if you can sell it at the end of your trip.
Visas: You get can an ETA or E Visa online for trips up to 3 months. Get more info and apply here. If you are under 31 and want to work and travel in Australia you may be eligible for a years working holiday visa
Where to go: The Perfect Cairns to Melbourne East Coast Australia Road Trip Itinerary
So starting from the North of Australia in Cairns, here are some essential stops and things to see on the perfect East Coast Australia road trip down to Melbourne. You can also reverse the route if you prefer.
I’ve listed the minimum amount of days to spend here, what to do and approximate driving times between the major stops, but if you can also allow time for extra stops, to venture of the beaten track and just explore – take a road that looks interesting and just see what surprises you discover. Spontaneity is part of what makes a road trip so much fun.
Cairns – 4 days
Cairns is most famous for being the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef and snorkelling or diving the reef is a must visit when in Australia. Cairns doesn’t really have a beach but the Cairns Lagoon and esplanade and is a great place to swim, relax, BBQ and play sports. The city has become a bit of a backpacker party town and there are also many things to do and see in the beautiful scenery around Cairns too.
You can’t visit Cairns without taking a trip snorkelling or diving the Great Barrier Reef . You can take a day trip or a live aboard multi day trip where you can go further out on the reef and maybe even do some night diving.
Be aware that sadly some of the inner reef areas nearer to Cairns are damaged, often cheaper companies are licensed only to visit the inner reef so it pays to be selective for which tour you take – both to get the best out of your experience and to help preserve the reef for the future. The eco friendly, multi award winning Passions of Paradise is one of the best reef day trips from Cairns and the one I went on. They take you to 2 unique outer reef locations for diving and snorkelling on their sleek sailing catamaran and the staff are fun and friendly too. Check out the trip advisor reviews.
Before you head South its well worthwhile going North to visit UNESCO listed the Daintree Rainforest and Cape Tribulation and see where two world heritage sites meet. You can go as far as Cape Tribulation but after that the road ends and you’ll need a 4WD.
As a day trip from Cairns you can head inland to explore the alternative town of Kuranda nestled in the rainforest only 20 mins drive from Cairns. Take the scenic railway or cable car to get there and visit the markets and art galleries. The AJ Hackett Bunjy jump and Minjin swing is also a thrilling way to enjoy the rainforest!
As you drive South you could drive the scenic route through the Atherton Tablelands and the waterfall circuit. (More info on where to go for the waterfalls here.) The AJ Hackett Bunjy jump and Minjin swing is also a thrilling way to enjoy the rainforest!
Cairns to Mission Beach – 2 hours direct drive
The Cassowary Coast: Mission Beach, Tully and Innisfail
A big Cassowary welcomes you to Mission Beach, these huge, unique birds are only found in this area, around the Daintree Rainforest and parts of Papua New Guinea although it is not common to spot them this area is still worth a stop.
Chilled out Mission Beach is quite an underrated spot with a string of nice beaches and small communities and loads of activities like skydiving and also don’t miss white water rafting nearby in Tully.
Mission Beach to Townsville – 3 hours drive
On the way to Townsville, known as the Great Green Way, you pass through national parks, rainforest and miles of fields of sugar cane and banana plantations while tropical islands lie just out to sea.
It’s a nice, scenic trip and its worth taking the time to head inland from Ingham to visit Wallaman Falls, Australia’s highest single drop waterfall.
Townsville and Magnetic Island – 3 days
Townsville is a pleasant town but the real draw is just across the water at Magnetic Island. There are many walks you can do around the island and it’s a great place to get close to the animals – we saw kangaroos, wallabies, and even rode horses on the beach and in the sea. There’s also full moon parties.
If you want to get a taste of the Outback take a detour about an hour ½ inland from Townsville to the tiny gold mining village of Ravenswood and the living museum of gold rush town Charters Towers.
There are quite a few free camping spots around Townsville listed in the Camps book. On Magnetic Island the Bungalow Bay Koala Village YHA is a lovely resort style hostel near the beach at Horseshoe Bay that offers camping, cabins, dorms, a swimming pool and even has its own wildlife park!
Townsville to Airlie Beach – 3 1/2 hours
Airlie Beach and The Whitsunday Islands – 3 days
Airlie Beach is the jumping off point for exploring the beautiful Whitsunday Islands and a bit of a party town and backpacker hangout. Don’t miss the Whitsunday Islands, one of the most stunning sights on Australia’s East Coast.
Seeing the view from the famous Hill Inlet and spending time on Whitehaven Beach is a must – this is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. Multi day Live aboard trips cruising and sailing and diving the Whitsunday Islands are popular (and pricey) but you can also take a day trip with Ocean Rafting like I did for a really fun and cheaper option.
You can also do a skydive here, in what must be one of the most beautiful locations in the world!
Free or cheap campsites are rare around popular Airlie Beach and the Whitsundays. Nomads and Base hostels are spacious resort style hostels that will also let you park your camper overnight and use the facilities for a reasonable fee. You can also camp on some islands for a little as $5.95 per person per night (get a permit first here)
Extra offbeat tip: Fancy seeing a platypus in the wild? Just after leaving Airlie Beach head about 1 hour inland to Eungella National Park – one of the best places in the world to see a platypus in the wild. On the way stop at the Pinnacle Pub for an amazing pie!
Airlie Beach to Agnes Water – 8 hours drive
After Airlie Beach it’s a long stretch of at least 5 hours driving with not that much of interest to see between the big country towns of Mackay and Rockhampton apart from the funny signs along the highways to try and keep drivers awake.
If you want to break up the journey stop by the Capricorn Caves, spectacular above-ground caves in a limestone ridge. You could also get a cattle station experience at Myella Farm where you can learn to be a cowboy and try farm experiences like riding horses and motorbikes, milking cows, lassoing and even whip cracking.
If you’re tired of driving, you could stay the night around Rockhampton (Capricorn Caves offers camping spots or you can find free campsites along the route in Camps Australia Wide book) or push on another 2 and a half hours to Agnes Water.
Town of 1770, Agnes Water and Bundaberg
The Town of 1770 was the first western settlement in Australia, named after the year it was discovered by Captain Cook and has some cute surf beaches to break up the journey. Agnes Water nearby is also a nice beach town to take a break, it’s the first surf beach you’ll reach coming this way and has probably the cheapest surf school in Australia – the Reef to Beach Surf School charges only $17 for a 3 hour lesson with all gear included. You can explore explore nearby Eurimbula and Deepwater National Parks.
Agnes Water to Bundaberg – 1 1/2 hours driving
Along this road trip route you will drive through miles and miles of fields of sugar cane, see how they make it into rum at the famous Bundaberg distillery, home to the famous Bundaberg (Bundie) Rum is made. Stop here for a tour of the rum distillery and stock up on discounted bottles for essential Queensland tipple!
Bundaberg to Rainbow Beach – 2 1/2 hours drive
Fraser Island – 3 days
Hervey Bay and Rainbow Beach are both quaint coastal towns that offer a jumping off point for the amazing Fraser Island.
Don’t miss visiting the World Heritage-listed Fraser Island. It’s the largest sand island in the world, it’s a unique and essential Australian experience with miles of beaches, rainforests and sparkling lakes, rusting shipwrecks and wild dingoes.
You can take a day tour of Fraser Island but it’s better to spend at least a few days and nights exploring Fraser Island trekking, swimming and camping out on the sand dunes under the stars.
There are a few ways to do it but you won’t be able to take your 2WD campervan or car onto the sandbar! You’ll need to hire a 4WD and get the ferry across then you can explore yourself ( just don’t get stuck in the sand!) You could also go with a group as part of a self drive ‘tag along’ tour or take a tour like Cool Dingo that are affordable, fun and popular with backpackers. Get $35 off the Cool Dingo tour by clicking this link and using the code Global35
Rainbow Beach to Sunshine Coast – 2 hours driving
Next you will drive through Maryborough, Queensland’s oldest provincial city and see a larger-then-life Ned Kelly and some nice historic buildings before hitting the coast again.
Sunshine Coast – 3 days
The Sunshine Coast is less developed and more sophisticated than the Gold Coast. Spend sun drenched days exploring the long, golden beaches, surf or just chill out in chic and charming, stylish Noosa, explore the Noosa everglades, enjoy the watersports and also check out the markets in new age Eumundi.
Sunshine Coast to Brisbane – 2 hours drive
Brisbane – 2 days
Queensland’s capital is no longer just a big country town – it’s increasingly cultured and cool centered around the winding river with a great array of museums and a urban beach on the lovely southbank. For more see my Backpacker’s Guide to Brisbane.
You can also use Brisbane as a base to do many day trips and tours around the nearby area. Explore Morten, Stradbroke or Bribie Island or escape into the hinterland of lush rainforests and waterfalls.
As you’d expect with a large city there’s not many places to camp near the center. Brisbane Holiday Village I think is the closest. But there’s loads of good campsites not far from Brisbane. There are also lots of cheap hostels you can stay in or look for a motel on the outskirts with parking.
Brisbane to the Gold Coast – 1 hour drive
The Gold Coast – 2 days
South of Brisbane is the Gold Coast. Home to Surfers Paradise, skyscrapers and theme parks. The Gold Coast is a bit tacky but can be fun. Surf, shop, visit the theme parks and sample the lively night life. If you want to do lots of theme parks and attractions save money with a Gold Coast flexi attractions pass.
If it sounds a bit like Vegas on the beach then head inland and discover three World Heritage-listed national parks: Tamborine Mountain, Springbrook and Lamington and as you head South a detour to climb Mount Warning at sunrise is worthwhile for the amazing views.
Gold Coast to Bryon Bay – 1 hour drive
Byron Bay – 3 days
Bryon Bay is one of the most popular stops on Australia’s east coast with it’s amazing sunsets and surf, beach lifestyle and cool, bohemian, alternative vibe. Walk along Cape Byron to the Byron Bay lighthouse on Australia’s most easterly point, enjoy the beaches, try surfing, diving, kayaking with dolphins, take a yoga class or indulge in some alternative therapies, check out the towns many excellent eateries or shop for organic food at a farmers market.
You can also take a side trip to nearby Nimbin and hang out with the hippies or check out the creative and cultural arty scene in Lismore.
I loved unique, quirky The Arts Factory it’s a super cool, hippish resort set in a private subtropical forest with a pond about 10 minutes walk from the town center. There’s a swimming pool and hot tub, spa, restaurant, kitchen, beer garden, cinema, yoga classes, workshops and even a recording studio. You can stay in your camper outside and use the facilities and feel the vibe.
There are also many free parking spots where you can camp, for example the Yelgun rest area, if you head north of Byron Bay along the Pacific highway.
Byron Bay to Sydney – 9 hours drive
If your short on time (for instance doing a campervan relocation deal ) you could steam down this section from Bryon to Sydney in about 9 hours, but if you’ve got the time then here’s where you should check out:
Yamba about 1.5 hrs South from Bryon is a nice, laid back place with great beaches and surf and worth a stop. Ulmarra, a nice heritage town on the river makes a nice lunch stop.
Heading further South, look out for the Big Banana near Coffs Harbour which has been stopping traffic and the feature of many silly photos since 1964. A little further on the artsy, alternative hill town of Bellingen and Dorrigo National Park makes a nice quick detour.
Further South Nambucca Heads and Port Macquarie are pleasant enough coastal towns worth a lunch stop or overnight rest but compared to the show stoppers further up the coast shouldn’t keep you too long.
The Lakes Way which starts from Taree and winds through the Myall Lakes and Booti Booti National Parks is a scenic alternative to the Pacific Highway.
Newcastle, New South Wales easy going 2nd city has nice surf beaches and heritage architecture. Nearby Nelsons Bay (the dolphin capital of Australia) Port Stephens and the Tomaree Peninsula are home to some extraordinary sand dunes (that you can sand board on) deserted beaches, national park, the Worimi Conservation Lands.
Heading inland from Newcastle you can check out the wineries of the scenic Hunter Valley Australia’s oldest wine region. Most wineries offer free tastings and there is also gourmet cheeses, chocolates and other foods to try. You might want to leave the car or camper behind for this one! You can take a day trip from Newcastle or Sydney This Hunter Valley trip includes tasting not only wine but also chocolates, cheeses and includes a gourmet lunch.
There’s also many national parks in the region including Barrington Tops, Yengo and Wollemi.
Sydney – 4 days
Sydney! Australia’s most iconic city is a must see! Sydney is blessed with a stunning harbour and beaches that make it one of the most beautiful cities in the world and home to one of the most iconic views.
Learning to surf on famous Bondi Beach and explore the beautiful harbour and nature by taking the spectacular cliff top walk from Bondi to Coogee. Also catch a ferry to Manly and do the scenic Manly to Spit walk and also don’t miss the UNESCO listed Blue Mountains, a great escape from the city. See more in my Backpacker’s Guide to Sydney.
Sydney to Melbourne – 9 hours drive inland or 13 hours via coastal route
So after Sydney you can choose – do you take the quickest route to Melbourne, take time out and see Australia’s often overlooked capital Canberra, a purpose built city with many great museums, or take a bit more time and carry on along the coastal route to Melbourne – called the Sapphire Coast.
The highlights along the coastal route from Sydney to Melbourne include Jervis Bay and stunning Hyams Beach only about 3 hours south of Sydney and also Croajingalong national park and the Gippsland Lakes– Australia’s biggest inland waterway. If you have time, take a detour to the beautiful Mornington Peninsula or the Wilson’s Promontory before hitting Melbourne.
Melbourne – 3 days
Melbourne is Australia’s cultural capital of cool and Australia’s most European city. Explore the laneways, art and culture, markets and food and sporting scene of this lively, trendy cosmopolitan city. The jury’s out about which city is cooler – Melbourne or Sydney so you will just have to visit both and decide for yourself… See more in my Backpacker’s Guide to Melbourne.
The Great Ocean Road – 2 days
Once you’ve taken a epic East Coast Australia road trip then what better way to top it off (or get off to a amazing start if you want to reverse the route) on one of the best coastal drives in the world – The Great Ocean Road , just outside Melbourne.
The Great Ocean Road is famous for the magnificent Twelve Apostles, a constantly changing coast line and famous surf beaches. There is a lot more to the Great Ocean Road though so don’t rush it – take your time and soak up the scenery and discover all the other secrets it holds along the way.
From here you could return to Melbourne or carry on driving to Adelaide and then head straight up through Australia’s Red Center, the Outback, Uluru (Ayers Rock) and all the way up to the Top End and Darwin. Don’t forget to go into the Outback at some point on your Australia trip – the Outback is where the uniqueness and magical of the land down under really shines!…But that’s another trip for another post!
To help with finding accommodation, practical tips and things to do I traveled with the Camps Australia Wide book to find free campsites all down the East Coast and a Lonely Planet Australia Travel Guide and I would recommend buying this from Amazon before you go (because it’s cheaper) as it is packed with all the info you need for this epic East Coast Australia road trip. You’ll also need a map – this Australia Map by Lonely Planet is really useful.
But don’t forget to leave the well trodden route of the guide book behind sometimes because often the best things are the surprise you discover when you get lost or take a wrong turn!
Have an amazing East Coast Australia road trip!
If you want to stay longer and immerse yourself in Aussie culutre and earn some money for further travels then maybe consider a years working holiday visa then download my free backpacker’s guide to see if you are eligible for a working holiday visa
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