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! This route will give you a great taste of everything Australia has to offer from cosmopolitan cities, iconic sites, and world class natural wonders, pristine beaches and ancient rainforests.
Planning your East Coast Australia Adventure.
When’s the best time to travel the East Coast of Australia
Traveling the East Coast is a must do when in Australia. You could do this route in either direction but think about the time of year that you plan to visit Australia – if it’s winter (June – August) then start off in tropical north Queensland and work your way down to the colder South. If it’s Summer then either Melbourne or Sydney are popular starting points.
Visas for Australia
Expect for New Zealanders, all visitors to Australia need to obtain a visa before travelling but don’t worry, this is an easy process. Tourist visas for Australia are known as Electronic Travel Authority (ETA) visa cover visits of up to 90 day and are quick to process and are electronically linked to your passport so there’s no need to send your passport away. The visa costs $20, apply online through the government website or make the process even quicker and easier by using iVisa.
If you want to stay longer and work and travel in Australia for a year or more then download my free backpacker’s guide to see if you are eligible for a working holiday visa
The best way to travel Australia’s East Coast
The best way to travel the East Coast of Australia is undoubtedly by campervan. There are loads of campervan hire companies in Australia and 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). The best site for comparing campervan rental prices is DriveNow.com.au which compares prices from all the leading rental companies so you can make sure you’re getting the best deal. If your flexible then also check out how you can rent a campervan for only $1 per day by scoring a relocation deal.
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 driving isn’t an option then don’t worry, you can also take the Greyhound bus. Purchase a pass instead of point to point tickets for the best deals.
On a Group Tour
There are also many great tours that include all the East Coast highlights. G Adventures and Intrepid are my favourites as they run some awesome, award winning, socially responsible, small tours for all budgets and tastes around Australia.
The East Coast Encompassed – Sydney to Cairns 18 days tour by G Adventures covers all the major highlights as well as including some interesting Aussie experiences like sheep shearing, panning for gold, surfing lessons, painting with aboriginal people and sleeping in a swag under the outback sky at an cattle station. It’s a ‘yolo’ tour so it’s a budget friendly tour where you’ll be traveling with a bunch of fun, young, like minded people. Click here for more details. Intrepid also have a 14 day Australia’s East Coast Encompassed – Sydney to Cairns tour
To save money check out G Adventure’s last minute deals and Intrepid’s last min deals to see if you can grab a bargain. You can also compare itineraries and prices from loads of different tour companies and find great deals on Tour Radar – check out this page where you can get 40% of Australia and New Zealand tours.
For all the tips you need see my Ultimate Backpacker Guide on Buying a Campervan in Australia.
How long does it take to travel the East Coast of 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 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.
Where to stay on Australia’s East Coast
Many people are worried about the cost of traveling in Australia but there are many ways that you can make this trip of a lifetime more affordable.
A campervan is the best way as it can save you money on accommodation. There are many free or low cost campsites all across Australia ranging from all signing all dancing resorts with more facilities that you could ever need to a basic spot in the woods with a compost toilet.
If you’ve only got a station wagon – chuck a mattress in the back. Only have a small car – get a cheap tent.
There are also heaps of funky, modern backpacker hostels all up and down the east coast that are affordable places to stay and great places to meet other travellers. Many of Australia’s hostels have facilities more akin to a resort with facilities like swimming pools, bars, kitchens and many hostels can also help you with things like looking for work and with onward travel plans. Many offer camping spots as well.
Expect to pay $25 – $40 per person per night for a bed in a dorm. You can search for hostels and compare prices from all the major booking websites on Hostelz.com to make sure that you are getting the best deal or look for deals on hotels at Booking.com.
Where to go: The Perfect Cairns to Melbourne Itinerary
From Cairns to Melbourne – here’s all the best places to see and the perfect itinerary for an East Coast Australia road trip.
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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.
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 – 3 days
Cairns is most famous for being the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef and is a must do when in Oz. Cairns has become a bit of a party town and most backpackers start or finish their trip here and there are many good day trips in the beautiful scenery around Cairns too. For more info see my Backpacker’s Guide to Cairns.
Stay: If your looking to party then Gilligans Backpacker Hostel is the place to go, or try something more chilled out but still with a friendly vibe check out Travellers Oasis. There are many campsites but it’s not easy to find free camping around Cairns.
Extra: If you have the time head North from Cairns to the Daintree Rainforest and Cape Tribulation and see where two world heritage sites meet and head inland to explore Kuranda Rainforest or the Atherton Tablelands with its amazing waterfalls. You can also do these as tours or day trips from Cairns. If you want to see and do it all you can save money by taking a package like this one from Viator which includes a Great Barrier Reef, Kuranda and Cape Tribulation tours. See here for more details.
Cairns to Mission Beach – 2 hours drive
The Cassowary Coast: Mission Beach, Tully and Innisfail – 1/2 days
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 nice beach and loads of activities like skydiving and white water rafting nearby in Tully.
Stay: Jackaroo Treehouse is a super cool hostel in Mission Beach.
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 tropical fruits while tropical islands lie just out to sea. It’s a nice trip and if you have more time you could take a side trip from Cardwell and visit Wallaman Falls, Australia’s highest single drop waterfall or drive through the living museum of gold rush town Charters Towers.
Townsville and Magnetic Island – 2 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.
Townsville to Airlie Beach – 3 1/2 hours
Airlie Beach and The Whitsunday Islands – 2 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. 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 tandem skydive here, in what must be one of the most beautiful locations in the world!
Stay: Most of the resorts on the Whitsunday Islands are amazing but expensive, but if your on a budget did you know you can camp on some islands for a little as $5.95 per person per night (get a permit first here) There are also many lively backpacker hostels in Airlie Beach, Nomads and Base are popular resort like hostels in the middle of all the action, Base will also let you camp for one night for only $5.
Extra offbeat tip: Fancy seeing a platypus in the wild? Just after leaving Airlie Beach, if you head slightly 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 drive with not that much of interest between the big country towns of Mackay and Rockhampton interspersed with funny signs along the highways to try and keep drivers awake.
Extra: If you have time break up the journey and head inland to the Capricorn Caves, spectacular above-ground caves in a limestone ridge. If you’re tired of driving, you could stay the night in Rockhampton or its probably better to push on another 2 and a half hours to Agnes Water.
Town of 1770, Agnes Water and Bundaberg – 1 day
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 and has probably the cheapest surf school in Australia – Reef to Beach Surf School charges only $17 for a 3 hour lesson with all gears included.
Or you could detour inland, to explore the lush rainforest of Cania Gorge National Park and marvel at the ancient Mystery Craters in Eurimbula National Park.
Stay: 1770 Backpackers has a chilled out, bohemian, home away from home vibe close to the beach.
Agnes Water to Bundaberg – 1 1/2 hours driving
Along this 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 – 2 days
Hervey Bay and Rainbow Beach are both quaint coastal towns that offer a jumping off point to Fraser Island. In the winter Hervey Bay is also one of the best places in the world to see humpback whales on their migration and Rainbow Beach is a nice place to hang out but don’t skip 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.
There are a few ways to do it – either hire a 4WD get the ferry across and explore yourself (don’t get stuck in the sand!) or go with a group as part of a self drive ‘tag along’ tour. You can take a day tour of Fraser Island but it’s better to spend a least a few days and nights exploring Fraser Island trekking, swimming and camping out on the sand dunes under the stars. The Cool Dingo tours are popular with backpackers.
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 – 2 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 Noosa, explore the Noosa everglades, enjoy the watersports and visit famous Australia Zoo.
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.
The Gold Coast – 1 day
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.
Stay: Surfers Paradise Backpacker’s Resort has lots of facilities, freebies and things going on
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 is worthwhile for the amazing views.
Gold Coast to Bryon Bay – 1 hour drive
Byron Bay – 2 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. Try surfing or just stroll along Cape Byron to the Byron Bay lighthouse on Australia’s most easterly point and don’t miss a magical Bryon sunrise or sunset.
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.
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 or drive on to Coffs Harbour and you’ll not miss The Big Banana – which has been stopping traffic and the feature of many silly photos since 1964.
Further South; Port Macquarie, Nambucca Heads and Port Stephens are pleasant enough coastal towns but compared to the show stoppers further up the coast shouldn’t keep you too long.
From Port Stephens, you could take detour inland to Barrington Tops National Park – a World Heritage-listed rainforest with extinct volcanic peaks or check out the mountainous, rainforest-fringed peninsula of Tomaree National Park.
Check out the wineries in the Hunter Valley, if you want to enjoy touring the wineries in style, and without worrying about driving so you’re free to sample the wine you could even take a helicopter tour! You could also go bushwalking in Yengo National Park or just take in the rolling hills, historic towns.
Sydney – 3 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.
But there’s much more to Sydney than just the iconic Sydney Opera house and Harbour Bridge 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 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.
It’s easy to understand why this area is called the Sapphire Coast, don’t miss Jervis Bay about 3 hours south of Sydney and enjoy dazzling Hyams Beach, a contender for Australia’s whitest stretch of sand.
Another highlight along this drive are the Gippsland Lakes– Australia’s biggest inland waterway, you can take a cruise or skipper your own boat and explore. Croajingalong is also worth a stop to trek to Point Hicks lighthouse and explore the windswept beach and wild national park and 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 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
If you’ve taken a road trip all the way across Oz what better way to top it off (or get off to a amazing start) 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 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 …But that’s another trip!
Want to work and travel in Australia?
If you want to stay longer and immerse yourself in Aussie culutre and earn some money for further travels then maybe consider a working holiday visa – download my free guide for working in Australia here.
Of course there’s heaps of other places to visit and things to do along this backpacker right of passage – but it should give you a heaps good idea of how to get started.
And 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!
To help with finding accommodation, practical tips and things to do I traveled with a Lonely Planet Australia Travel Guide and I would recommend buying this from Amazon before you go (it’s cheaper) as it is packed with all the info you need for this epic trip – just 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 trip!
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