The Whitsunday Islands are a collection of islands off the central coast of Queensland, Australia and one of the most popular destinations in the country.
From backpackers visiting on 2-3 day sailing trips to people traveling the Whitsundays on their own boat to those staying at the resorts that dot the islands, anyone who goes up the east coast of Australia tends to stop here for some R&R.
The Whitsundays are stunning. You really can’t come to the area and not see them.
Since the vast majority of these islands are designated national parks, you’ll pristine beaches and dive sites here. The coral reefs provide incredible snorkeling and diving, Whitehaven Beach is everything it’s cracked up to be, and the crystalline waters are perfect for a swim.
I loved my multi-day sailing trip around the Whitsundays but no matter how you plan to visit these islands, this travel guide can help you determine what to see, how long to go for, how to save money, and everything in between!
Table of Contents
The Whitsunday Islands
Top 5 Things to See and Do in the Whitsunday Islands
1. Attend Race Week
2. Try birdwatching
3. Go diving
4. See Hamilton Island
5. Explore Whitsunday Island
Other Things to See and Do in the Whitsunday Islands
1. See the Great Barrier Reef
The Great Barrier Reef is the largest living thing on Earth (it’s actually visible from space). Stretching over 2,300km, it’s a World Heritage site where you can take a cruise, swim, snorkel, dive, or book a glass-bottom boat tour to go looking for Nemo. Expect to pay between 250-300 AUD (188-25 USD) for most excursions.
2. Take a resort vacation
Most resorts offer package deals with sailing trips, spa visits, golfing, arcades, and snorkeling tours. If you aren’t interested in sailing around the island and would rather just stay in one place and take small side trips to the other islands, the resorts are your best bet. Live in luxury for a bit!
3. Fly over Heart Reef
Ever see that famous photo of a reef shaped like a heart? Well, that’s here! While definitely not a budget activity, booking a helicopter tour over the reef is something special. An hour-long ride costs around 700 AUD ($525 USD). An hour-long small plane tour costs about 200 AUD ($150 USD). Most tours will also take you over other sections of the Great Barrier Reef as well.
4. Hike to Passage Peak
There aren’t a whole lot of walking trails in the Whitsundays as it’s mostly a place for water-based activities but, if you want to get some exercise, head to the top of Passage Peak on Hamilton Island. It’s an easy 45-minute trek, and the view at the top of the island chain is perfect. It’s the best hike in the Whitsundays.
5. Sail the islands
Visiting the Whitsundays on a sailboat is one of the best ways to experience the islands. You’ll get to poke around in a lot of remote places, including some ideal snorkeling spots. Expect to pay between 375-499 AUD ($275-370 USD) per person for a 2-night sailing trip You can book tours on the mainland from Airlie Beach. OzSail, Redcat Adventures, and The Atlantic Clipper are some of the more popular companies running tours.
6. Go camping
If you’re on a budget but still want to enjoy the region’s natural beauty, go camping. Camping permits cost as little as 8 AUD ($6 USD) per night. You’ll need to take a water taxi to get to your island/campsite. Expect to pay at least 80 AUD ($60 USD) for round-trip service to the islands.
For more information on specific cities in Australia, check out these guides:
Whitsunday Islands Travel Costs
Hostel prices – There are no hostels on the islands since people either stay in hotels or sail around on boats. When you’re searching for hostels, you’re likely to come across some on Airlie Beach as the main launching point for visiting the Whitsundays, but it isn’t actually in the islands.
You can camp on the islands though, however, as I mentioned previously you’ll need your own gear as well as transportation to/from the islands. It’s still a budget-friendly choice though (especially if you’re splitting the costs with someone).
Budget hotel prices – Some of the larger islands have hotels, but they are not budget-friendly. The hotels here are more like resorts and most start at 225 AUD ($170 USD) per night on Hamilton Island. Other islands are a little cheaper, usually starting around 100 AUD ($75 USD) per night for more mid-range hotels or eco-lodges.
Airbnb is also available around the islands and is a bit more affordable. Private rooms start around 75 AUD ($56 USD) while entire apartments start at 140 AUD ($105 USD).
Average cost of food – If you’re on a sailing trip, all food is provided on the boat, but you’ll have to bring your own alcohol. If you go on your own, you can buy food at the resorts and hotels. Most meals start at 20 AUD ($15 USD), however, there are also a few casual and takeaway spots where you can grab a sandwich for 10-15 AUD ($8-11 USD).
You generally have more limited food options around the islands, so if you’re on a budget book accommodation where you can cook your own food or where meals are included. Some hotels and resorts include meals. Make sure you know what’s included when you book.
If you cook your meals, expect to pay 100 AUD ($75 USD) per week for groceries that will include pasta, vegetables, chicken, and other basic foodstuffs. The IGA on Hamilton Island is one of the cheapest places to buy groceries on the islands.
Backpacking the Whitsunday Islands: Suggested Budgets
The cheapest way to see the Whitsundays is by hopping on a sailing trip, which costs around 375-499 AUD for a 3-day/2-night sailing trip. This covers your transportation from Airlie Beach, food, all sightseeing and activities (like snorkeling), and basically everything you need to have an amazing time in the Whitsunday Islands. (Remember: booze isn’t included in your sailing trip. Pick up a box of goon!)
This how most backpackers get around and, while it’s not cheap, most travelers plan in advance for this and splurge on this activity. Camping is definitely possible instead, but you need to have all your own gear. If you do camp, you can lower your costs to under 50 AUD per day (assuming you’re staying on one island and not bouncing around).
On a mid-range budget of about 275 AUD per day, you can take a ferry from Airlie to Hamilton Island, stay in a hotel or Airbnb, eat takeaway food or grab meals at local cafes (combined with cooking some of your meals and having picnics), and do some water activities like kayaking, hiking, and snorkeling.
On a “luxury” budget of 505 AUD per day or more, you can take a ferry from Airlie to Hamilton Island, book a stay in a resort, eat out for all your meals (and have a cocktail with your dinner), and hire a buggy to get around Hamilton. You can also participate in just about any tour you want: a full-day sailing trip, a flight over the Heart Reef, or even learn how to dive. At this price point, you can do what you want!
Here’s a chart with some suggested budgets to help you plan. Prices are in AUD:
Whitsunday Islands Travel Guide: Money-Saving Tips
The Whitsunday Islands are definitely not a budget destination. A visit here requires lots of planning and preparation. However, there are some ways to save money in the Whitsunday Islands:
- BYOB – With the exception of day trips on large boats with licensed bars, you can bring your own alcohol on board most boats. To stick to your budget, most travelers bring a box of goon (cheap wine) for the trip.
- Couchsurf – Accommodation here can be quite pricey. If you plan ahead, you might be able to find a Couchsurfing host in the Whitsunday Islands (or on the mainland near Airlie Beach before you depart). Just make sure you request a spot well in advance.
- Camp – If you enjoy being outdoors, there are tons of campgrounds around the islands. It’s the cheapest way to see stay on the islands! However, you’ll need your own boat to get to these sites, and will also have to provide your own food but it will be super cheap!
- Bring a water bottle – The tap water in Australia is safe to drink. Bring a reusable water bottle to save money and lower your plastic use. Lifestraw is my favorite as it has a built-in filter to ensure your water is always clean and safe.
- Do a day trip – If staying on the islands is too pricey, stay on the mainland instead and just do a day trip to one of the islands. It won’t be cheap but it will be cheaper than a longer visit or sailing trip!
Where To Stay in the Whitsunday Islands
There are no hostels in the Whitsunday Islands. If you want to stay at a resort on the cheaper end (which still starts from 320 AUD/$230 USD), here are a few recommendations:
How to Get Around the Whitsunday Islands
Sailing – Sailing is the best way to see the Whitsunday Islands. Sailing trips leave from Airlie beach and usually include meals and activities. You can take longer or shorter tours depending on your budget too. Read about my 3-day sailing trip for more details.
Ferry – Cruise Whitsundays is the main ferry operator running transfers in the Whitsundays, providing transfers between Daydream Island, Hamilton Island, and Airlie Beach (on the mainland). The ferry between the Airlie and the Hamilton Island costs 60 AUD ($45 USD) each way. Airlie to Hamilton Island Airport is the same price. The ferry between Airlie and Daydream Island is 38 AUD ($29 USD). For more ferry prices, see their schedule
Buggy Rental – On Hamilton Island, you can rent buggies to get around. Prices start at 59 AUD ($44 USD) for two hours or 87 AUD ($65 USD) for 24 hours.
When to Go to the Whitsunday Islands
The best time of year to visit the Whitsunday Islands is in September when there’s near-constant sunshine, very little rainfall, and the temperature maxes out at 79°F (26°C). The humidity isn’t too high, and the water is ideal for watersports (like snorkeling and swimming). A lot of people prefer to do sailing trips during this time as well.
The winter months (from June through August) is also a good time to visit, with comfortable temperatures hovering around 75°F (24°C) each day. However, the water can be quite chilly. If you’re not too keen on spending time in the water, this shouldn’t be a problem.
Australia’s summer months are hot and humid, so most people prefer to avoid the islands during this time. Temperatures are high from December through February, and there is the possibility of cyclones. October through May is also known as “stinger season,” when the box jellyfish and the Irukandji are abundant and can give you a potentially fatal sting.
How to Stay Safe in the Whitsunday Islands
The Whitsunday Islands are very safe. Thee only dangers here are from the natural environment.
Be sure you have plenty of sunscreen, and stay as hydrated as possible. Bring mosquito repellant. Be on the lookout for snakes and spiders, and if you’re bitten, seek immediate care. Furthermore, if you’re swimming, heed the red and yellow flags. Yellow flags indicate swimming conditions may be dangerous; red flags mean the beach is closed.
October through May is known as “stinger season,” when the box jellyfish and the Irukandji are plentiful and can deliver a seriously painful sting (or even a potentially fatal one).
The tropical climate here means unexpected storms may pop up, including cyclones. Be sure to check the weather forecast in advance before you do any activities. You do not want to be stranded in a tropical storm!
The national park services also advise against swimming in Cid Harbour as a number of shark attacks have been reported there in recent years.
The most important piece of safety advice I can offer is to purchase good travel insurance. Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. You can use the widget below to find the policy right for you:
The Whitsunday Islands Travel Guide: The Best Booking Resources
Below are my favorite companies to use when I travel to Australia and the Whitsunday Islands. They are included here because they consistently turn up the best deals, offer world-class customer service and great value, and overall, are better than their competitors.
- Skyscanner – Skyscanner is my favorite flight search engine. They search small websites and budget airlines that larger search sites tend to miss. They are hands down the number one place to start.
- Momondo – This is my other favorite flight search engine because they search such a wide variety of sites and airlines. I never book a flight without checking here too.
- Booking.com – The best all around booking site that constantly provides the cheapest and lowest rates. They have the widest selection of budget accommodation. In all my tests, they’ve always had the cheapest rates out of all the booking websites.
- Airbnb – Airbnb is a great accommodation alternative for connecting with homeowners who rent out their homes or apartments. There may not be a lot of Airbnb options in the Whitsunday Islands, but you never know when you might score a great deal.
- Rome2Rio – This website allows you to see how to get from point A to point B the best and cheapest way possible. Just enter your departure and arrival destinations and it will give you all the bus, train, plane, or boat routes that can get you there as well as how much they cost. One of the best transportation website out there!
- hamiltonisland.co.au – This is a booking portal for many accommodations and activities in the Whitsunday Islands, and sometimes they offer special discounts or packages. You can sign up for the newsletter ahead of time!
- World Nomads – I buy all my travel insurance from World Nomads. They have great customer service, competitive prices, and in-depth coverage. I’ve been using them since I started traveling in 2003. Don’t leave home without it!
Whitsunday Islands Gear and Packing Guide
If you’re heading on the road and need some gear suggestions, here are my tips for the best travel backpack and for what to pack!
The Best Backpack for Travelers
Straps: Thick and cushy with compression technology that pulls the pack’s load up and inwards so it doesn’t feel as heavy.
Features: Removable top lid, large pocket at the front, hydration compatible, contoured hip belt
If you want something different, refer to my article on how to choose the best travel backpack for tips on picking a pack and other backpack suggestions.
What to Pack for Your Trip
- 1 pair of jeans (heavy and not easily dried, but I like them; a good alternative is khaki pants)
- 1 pair of shorts
- 1 bathing suit
- 5 T-shirts (Unbound Merino is my preferred company. If you’re a member of NM+, you can get 15% off your purchase)
- 1 long-sleeved T-shirt
- 1 pair of flip-flops
- 1 pair of sneakers
- 6 pairs of socks (I always end up losing half)
- 5 pairs of boxer shorts (I’m not a briefs guy!)
- 1 toothbrush
- 1 tube of toothpaste
- 1 razor
- 1 package of dental floss
- 1 small bottle of shampoo
- 1 small bottle of shower gel
- 1 towel
Small Medical Kit (safety is important!!!)
- Hydrocortisone cream
- Antibacterial cream
- Hand sanitizer (germs = sick = bad holiday)
- A key or combination lock (safety first)
- Zip-lock bags (keeps things from leaking or exploding)
- Plastic bags (great for laundry)
- Universal charger/adaptor (this applies to everyone)
- LifeStraw (A water bottle with a purifier)
Female Travel Packing List
I’m not a woman, so I don’t know what a woman wears, but Kristin Addis, our solo female travel guru, wrote this list as an addition to the basics above:
- 1 swimsuit
- 1 sarong
- 1 pair of stretchy jeans (they wash and dry easily)
- 1 pair of leggings (if it’s cold, they can go under your jeans, otherwise with a dress or shirt)
- 2-3 long-sleeve tops
- 2-3 T-shirts
- 3-4 spaghetti tops
- 1 light cardigan
- 1 dry shampoo spray & talc powder (keeps long hair grease-free in between washes)
- 1 hairbrush
- Makeup you use
- Hair bands & hair clips
- Feminine hygiene products (you can opt to buy there too, but I prefer not to count on it, and most people have their preferred products)
For more on packing, check out these posts:
The Whitsunday Islands Travel Guide: Suggested Reading
In A Sunburned Country, by Bill Bryson
Bill Bryson is one of the most prolific and recognized names in travel writing. This book chronicles a journey through Australia and takes you from east to west, through tiny little mining towns, forgotten coastal cities, and off-the-beaten-path forests. Bryson includes lots of trivia in his tale as he travels around in awe — and sometimes in fear (thanks to box jellyfish, riptides, crocs, spiders, and snakes) — of this enormous country. This is the book that inspired me to go to Australia.
A Long Way From Home, by Peter Carey
Irene Bob loves to drive fast, and her husband is the best car salesman in southeastern Australia. Together they decide to enter the 1954 Redex Trial – an endurance drive that circumnavigates the entire country. Willie Bachhuber, a failed schoolteacher, joins them. If they win their lives will be forever changed – but first they’re led out of the comfortable Australia they know so well and into an unexpected adventure full of twists and turns. Peter Carey is a two-time Booker Prize winner, and one of Australia’s most well-known writers.
Tracks: A Woman’s Solo Trek Across 1700 Miles of Australian Outback, by Robyn Davidson
This is Robyn Davidson’s memoir of her incredible journey 1,700 miles through the Australian desert to the sea, accompanied only by four camels and a dog. Davidson fends off sweltering heat, poisonous snakes, and dangerous men – all while wrangling her temperamental camels. It’s definitely one of those transformative stories that allows you to get super invested in the author as well as the severe Australian desert landscape.
The Songlines, by Bruce Chatwin
You can’t come to Australia without learning a little bit about the country’s Indigenous Australians. This is part travelogue and part autobiography, and one of Chatwin’s most famous books. Here, Chatwin searches the Australian Outback for the source of the Aboriginal “dreaming tracks,” the invisible pathways from which the Aboriginals’ ancestors sang the world into existence. The Songlines was an instant best-seller when it was published, and nowadays it’s a classic.
The Whitsunday Islands Travel Guide: Related Articles
Want more info? Check out all the articles I’ve written on Australia travel and continue planning your trip: