Cairns is Australia’s gateway to northern Queensland. From here you can visit the Great Barrier Reef, the Daintree rainforest, the Atherton tablelands, Cape Tribulation, and much more. Cairns is a pretty typical tropical city, and life here focuses on taking the time to smell the roses. With so much to see, the city deserves a longer stay than most people give it. I would stay 3-4 days, which will give you enough time to explore the area, plus spend some time lounging by the pool. This Australian town may be small, but it will leave you wanting more and this travel guide to Cairns can help you plan your trip.
Hostel prices — Dorm rooms are quite cheap in Cairns, ranging from 17-30 AUD per night. You can find beds in dorm rooms with 6-8 beds starting at 17 AUD. Smaller dorm rooms (4 beds) will cost around 24 AUD per night. Private rooms that sleep 2 with a shared bathroom cost about 55-90 AUD on average. My favorite hostels in the city are Gilligans, Asylum, and Calypso (a bit outside of the city).
Budget hotel prices — You can find rooms in 3-star hotels that sleep 2 people that start around 185 AUD. Most offer air-conditioning and free WiFi and some include breakfast. On Airbnb, a shared room in a home averages about 50 AUD and typically offers a bed big enough for two people. You can find whole apartments and houses for around 85 AUD, and some even have access to a swimming pool. (Booking with Airbnb offers the unique opportunity to stay in a local home in Cairns, something you wouldn’t typically see if you were staying in a hotel or hostel instead.)
Average cost of food — Cheap meals like sandwiches, take away shops, and Indian can be found for under 14 AUD. Most restaurants meals will cost between 27-40 AUD. If you cook your own food, plan to spend between 60-80 AUD per week for basic groceries like pasta, vegetables, chicken, and other basic foodstuffs. There’s a lot of good seafood and Asian food here.
Transportation costs — A taxi around the city is about 20-27 AUD, but taxis can be expensive and i would avoid them. Many of the hostels outside the city center offer free shuttle service in town at regular intervals. For other transportation needs, consider Cairns’ public bus system called the Sunbus. A single ticket in one zone costs 2.40 AUD, in two zones, it’s 2.90 AUD. A daily ticket for one zone is 4.80 AUD and for two zones it’s 5.80 AUD.
Suggested daily budget — 60 AUD / 43 USD (Note: This is a suggested budget assuming you’re staying in a hostel, eating out a little, cooking most of your meals, and using local transportation. Be sure to budget more if you’re planning on doing lots of tours! Using the budget tips below, you can always lower this number. However, if you stay in fancier accommodation or eat out more often, expect this to be higher!)
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Money Saving Tips
- Buy a package — There is a lot to see and do in the area that can really be a drag on your budget. Booking tours together with one company can get you a slight discount.
- Work for your room — Cairns is one of the biggest work destinations for travelers. Hostels are always hiring new staff, and staying in this city is a great option if you plan to stay in Australia longer.
- Eat cheap — Eating out can be very expensive, however, there are a lot of sandwich shops around that can keep your costs down. Avoid the sit-down restaurants, and instead, grab a sandwich or some delicious Asian or Indian food (which tends to be cheaper).
- Couchsurf — Accommodation in Australia can be quite pricey. If you plan ahead, you can usually find really nice Couchsurfing hosts all throughout the country. This way, you not only have a place to stay, but you’ll have a local host that can tell you the best places to go and things to see.
- Drink goon (box wine) — Goon is infamous on the Australian backpacker hostel trail. This cheap box of wine is the best way to drink, get a buzz, and save a lot of money at the same time. A 4-liter box typically costs 13 AUD, compare this to a six pack of beer which costs the same. Drink this before you go out and save on spending money at the bar (where it is about 10 AUD per drink).
- Cook — Again, eating out is not cheap. The best way to reduce your costs is to cook as many meals as possible. ALDI is the cheapest supermarket in the country, followed by Coles and then Woolworths (though sometimes you don’t get a choice at which place you can shop it! Some small towns only have one!). All hostels here have huge kitchens!
- Get free WiFi — The internet in Australia is painfully slow and expensive (just ask any Australian how they feel about this), but libraries and McDonalds have free WiFi that you can use.
Top Things to See and Do in Cairns
- Dive the Great Barrier Reef — The only natural landmark able to be seen from space, the Great Barrier Reef, is one of the best places to dive in the world. Cairns is the biggest jumping off point for dive trips to the reef. Trips start around 180 AUD for the day. I was blown away at the abundant wildlife and coral— it did not disappoint. Take a look at this video from my trip:
- Visit the Daintree Rainforest – The rainforest north of Cairns is the oldest rainforest on the planet, dating back to prehistoric times. There are a number of day trips here, but the best way to optimize your time is to visit the area on the way north towards Cape Tribulation. The forest is wonderful and makes for a beautiful day of swimming and hiking. My only regret is that I only had one day there as it would have been nice to spend a few days hiking all the trails.
- Take a trip up north — Cross the Daintree River and continue up into Cape Tribulation, Cooktown, and Cape York. These towns are great jumping off points for dive trips to the reef, jungle walks, and overall lounging. Few tourists make it up this way, and the area is a perfect place to escape the crowds. There isn’t anything to do up here except relax, enjoy nature, read a book, and avoid the jellyfish.
- See the Atherton Tablelands and Waterfalls — The Atherton tablelands have a plethora of waterfalls. Day tours are long, and you’ll leave early and get back late, but you’ll see a ton of great waterfalls, especially the famous Millaa Millaa Falls (which is crazy beautiful!). If you go, use Uncle Brian’s tours—they are incredibly popular, and though the day is long (We didn’t get back until like 7!), the tour packs a lot in (with plenty of swimming time) and the drivers are funny and engaging. I’ve never been on such a wild day-tour in my life. A one-day tour is 119 AUD.
- Do extreme sports — If hiking, diving, and swimming are too mundane for you, there’s always AJ Hackett’s bungee jump or a sky dive. AJ Hackett also has a swing that takes you 100 meters up and then launches you. It’s like the pirate ship ride at carnivals, except you don’t spin around—it scared the crap out of me! A bungee session costs 169 AUD.
- Hang out by the lagoon — Just sit around, do nothing, and spend the day relaxing by Cairns’ Lagoon (read: really big pool). You can’t go swimming in the water off the city because of jellyfish so the town built a giant pool! Most hostels have pools too but if you want to chill at a bigger place, the lagoon is pretty amazing – and you’ll find more locals around.
- White water rafting — There are three major rivers that are all popular among white water rafters. In a tropical region that gets plenty of rain, the rivers are always overflowing, and rafting is a popular activity here. Trips start at 100 AUD.
- Participate in an Aboriginal culture walk — There are many Aboriginals in the area, and they have done a great job of setting up an eco-tourism area. You can walk with them and learn about their culture, history, the plant life, traditional herbal medicine, and even go traditional Aboriginal spear fishing.
- Explore the Cairns Wildlife Dome — This wildlife exhibit is enclosed by 20m-tall glass dome on top of the Reef Hotel Casino. Quite different than any other zoo experience you may ever have, this exhibit is interesting and highly suited for those that would rather not adventure through the actual rainforest. This dome is host to a wide range of native animals, from lorikeets and rosellas to frogmouths and kookaburras. Entry costs 24 AUD.
- Try cable skiing — Used more commonly by the locals, this cable-driven water skiing park is a fun activity, particularly for younger and more active people. When you get tired of sightseeing, this man-made lake might be the place for you. Various jumps and games are set up to keep you entertained for a few hours. I declined to do it but my friends looked like they were having a great time! It’s 39 AUD for a one-hour pass.
- Meander through the Botanical Gardens — Just 5 minutes from the airport, this is a lovely stop to make on your way out of Cairns. There are several paths to walk along, through the beautiful tropical landscape. The Garden is rich in trees, ferns, plants, and a lake. It’s open daily from 7:30am-5:30pm.