The Whitsunday Islands are a collection of 74 islands off the central coast of Queensland, Australia. These incredibly stunning islands are one of the most popular destinations in the country.
From backpackers on sailing trips to locals on their own boats to those staying at the luxury resorts that dot the islands, anyone who goes up the east coast of Australia tends to stop here for some rest and relaxation.
Since the vast majority of these islands are designated national parks, you’ll find numerous 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. It’s postcard-perfect here.
I loved my multi-day sailing trip around the Whitsundays and I definitely recommend seeing the islands by boat over staying at one resort.
But, no matter how you plan to visit these islands, this travel guide can help you plan your trip!
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Top 5 Things to See and Do in the Whitsunday Islands
1. Attend Race Week
During August, Hamilton Island’s Race Week kicks off as hundreds of yachts — from 30-foot boats rented for the week to million-dollar super yachts — compete in some serious racing. It’s one of the biggest events of the year and attracts thousands of people. Aside from watching the various races, the festival also includes dinners presented by celebrity chefs, wine tasting, golf tournaments, and more. It’s not your typical budget backpacker event, but it makes for a fun and lively time to visit!
2. Try birdwatching
The islands here are home to many nesting sites and exotic bird species, such as the curlew and the brolga. Keep an eye out for sulfur-crested cockatoos, terns, tattlers, reef egrets, sooty oyster-catchers, and white-bellied sea eagles, one of Australia’s largest raptors, which have a wingspan of up to 2.2 meters (7.2 feet). Fruit bats (also known as flying foxes) are also common around the islands too.
3. Go diving
The islands are known for their diving. Reefs are best viewed during the summertime as the rainy season makes the water murky and visibility gets pretty bad. Here, you’ll be able to spot a wide array of vibrant fish, coral, rays, sea turtles, and more. Dives start at around 150-200 AUD for a two-tank dive.
4. Enjoy Hamilton Island
This is the largest island in the Whitsundays. Often referred to as “Hamo,” if you’re looking to spend some time at a resort, you’ll find a lot of options here. There are lots of spas, trails, and places to go ATVing. Personally, I found it too developed for me but, if you want to splash out on a resort escape, it’s a good choice. Don’t miss the nearby Heart Reef while you’re here (more on it below).
5. See the Great Barrier Reef
The Great Barrier Reef is the largest living thing on Earth (it’s actually visible from space). Stretching over 2,300 kilometers (1,429 miles) and composed of almost 3,000 individual reefs, it’s a UNESCO 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 for most excursions. Common wildlife that can be seen here include sharks, manta rays, whales, clown fish, dolphins, giant clams, and more!
Other Things to See and Do in the Whitsunday Islands
1. 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!
2. 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 and popular with couples visiting on a romantic getaway. An hour-long helicopter ride costs around 700 AUD. An hour-long small plane tour costs about 275 AUD. Most tours will also take you over other sections of the Great Barrier Reef as well.
3. 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.
4. Sail the islands
Visiting the Whitsundays on a sailboat is one of the best ways to experience the islands. You’ll get to explore a lot of remote places, including some ideal snorkeling spots. Expect to pay between 399-499 AUD per person for a three-day/two-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. If you just want to do a day cruise, Cruise Whitsundays offers half-day crusies for 125 AUD.
5. 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 7 AUD per night. You’ll need to take a water taxi to get to your island/campsite but once you’re there you can enjoy the region for cheap. Expect to pay at least 80 AUD for round-trip service to the islands.
For more information on other places 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 on the islands. Expect to pay 30-60 AUD per night for a hostel dorm in Airlie Beach. Free Wi-Fi is standard and most hostels include self-catering facilities.
You can camp on the islands but you’ll need your own gear as well as transportation to/from the islands. It’s still a budget-friendly choice though. Basic plots cost as little as 7 AUD per night.
Budget hotel prices – Some of the larger islands have hotels. They are more like resorts and most start at 200 AUD per night on Hamilton Island. Other islands are a little cheaper, usually starting around 125 AUD per night for more mid-range hotels or eco-lodges.
Airbnb is available around the islands and is a bit more affordable. Private rooms start around 75 AUD while entire apartments start at 150 AUD. Expect to pay double that (or more) if you don’t book early.
Food – If you’re on a sailing trip, 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 20-25 AUD, however, there are also a few casual and takeaway spots where you can grab a sandwich for under 20 AUD.
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 own meals, expect to pay 100 AUD per week for basic staples like pasta, vegetables, chicken, and other basic foodstuffs.
Backpacking the Whitsunday Islands: Suggested Budgets
The cheapest way to see the Whitsundays is by hopping on a sailing trip, which costs around 399-499 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 is how most backpackers get around and, while it’s not cheap, most travelers plan in advance 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 cheap hotel or Airbnb, eat some 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 590 AUD per day or more, you can take a ferry from Airlie to Hamilton Island, stay in a resort, eat out for all your meals (and have a cocktail with 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!
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.
- Stay with a local – 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 as there are not a lot of hosts.
- 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, here are a few recommendations that aren’t too expensive:
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 Airlie and Hamilton Island costs 60 AUD each way. Airlie to Hamilton Island Airport is the same price. The ferry between Airlie and Daydream Island is 40 AUD. For more ferry prices, see their schedule
Buggy Rental – On Hamilton Island, you can rent buggies to get around. Prices start at 60 AUD for two hours or 98 AUD 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 reaches highs of 29°C (84°F). 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) are also a good time to visit, with comfortable temperatures hovering around 22°C (71°F) 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 The 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 Irukandji jellyfish 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.
If you experience an emergency, dial 000 for assistance.
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:
Whitsunday Islands Travel Guide: The Best Booking Resources
These are my favorite companies to use when I travel. They consistently have the best deals, offer world-class customer service and great value, and overall, are better than their competitors. They are the companies I use the most and are always the starting point in my search for travel deals.
- 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.
- Hostelworld – This is the best hostel accommodation site out there with the largest inventory, best search interface, and widest availability.
- 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.
- Intrepid Travel – If you want to do group tours, go with Intrepid. They offer good small group tours that use local operators and leave a small environmental footprint. And, as a reader of this site, you’ll get exclusive discounts with them too!
- Get Your Guide – Get Your Guide is a huge online marketplace for tours and excursions. They have tons of tour options available in cities all around the world, including everything from cooking classes, walking tours, street art lessons, and more!
- 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. It’s one of the best transportation websites out there!
- SafetyWing – Safety Wing offers convenient and affordable plans tailored to digital nomads and long-term travelers. They have cheap monthly plans, great customer service, and an easy-to-use claims process that makes it perfect for those on the road.
- LifeStraw – My go-to company for reusable water bottles with built-in filters so you can ensure your drinking water is always clean and safe.
- Unbound Merino – They make lightweight, durable, easy-to-clean travel clothing.
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: