Getting Around Great Barrier Reef

The best way to get around the Great Barrier Reef is by car or boat, depending on where you plan to spend the majority of your time. If you're on the mainland, renting a car is the best way to get to and from the attractions in and around Cairns. However, if you're planning to spend your vacation on one of the reef's more remote areas, like the Whitsunday Islands or Lizard Island, then catching a boat is your best bet. Because Cairns is the tourist hub of Queensland (and a convenient point from which to explore the reef), many Great Barrier Reef visitors fly into Cairns International Airport (CNS). (If you're traveling from the U.S., you'll have to change planes in Sydney or Brisbane to get to Cairns.) If you're flying directly to one of the islands on the reef, you'll likely fly into the Great Barrier Reef Airport (HTI) on Hamilton Island. This airport welcomes flights from Cairns, Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne provided by carriers like Virgin Australia, Jetstar and Qantas. From Hamilton Island, you can easily hop on a plane or boat to explore the reef's neighboring islands.


If you're not planning to spend your entire vacation on one of the reef's secluded islands, consider renting a car. Having your own set of wheels will allow you to embark on excursions up and down the coast. The Captain Cook Highway runs from Cairns all the way to the Far North Queensland town of Mossman, with tourist towns like Palm Cove and Port Douglas in between, not to mention plenty of tropical scenery along the way. You'll also find a fair amount of scenic drives along the Whitsunday coastline. Rental agencies like Avis, Hertz and Europcar are stationed at Cairns International Airport and Airlie Beach, which is located in central Queensland, about 390 miles southeast of Cairns. You can use your own driver's license to get around Queensland, but remember that Aussies drive on the left side of the road. And if you're heading north, plan to fill up on gas — stations grow sparse the farther up the coast you climb.


For scenic island-hopping, consider booking a charter or tour flight with one of the reef's charter operators. GBR Helicopters, GSL Aviation and Air Whitsunday all offer transfers to and from Cairns International Airport (CNS) to the reef's islands for as little as $79 AUD per person ($74 USD). These same operators also offer sightseeing tours. GBR Helicopters operates a variety of flights that depart from Cairns or Port Douglas and afford spectacular views of Far North Queensland's World Heritage rainforest or some of the northern reefs verdant islands, like Green Island and Mission Bay. For daylong sightseeing tours that include island stopovers, consider GSL Aviation or Air Whitsunday.


If you're looking for an inexpensive way to island-hop, taking a boat is your best bet. You'll miss out on the arresting aerial views, but boats depart at more frequent intervals and offer everything from airport transport to day cruises. These trips will run you between $17 and $75 AUD (about $16 to $71 USD), depending on your departure and arrival location. If you're leaving from Cairns, you'll likely depart from Reef Fleet Terminal (situated a little more than a mile southwest of downtown Cairns). About 215 miles down the Queensland coast, you can catch SeaLink ferries from Townsville to Magnetic Island or Palm Island. For boating excursions to the Whitsunday Islands (specifically Long and Hamilton islands), you'll likely catch your boat at Shute Harbour, about 6 miles east of Airlie Beach. With Cruise Whitsundays you can also embark on day cruises to Whitehaven Beach.   


Perhaps the most cost-effective way to explore the entire Queensland coast is to take the Queensland Rail. Queensland Rail offers high-speed Tilt Trains (trains with "tilt technology" that enable a smoother, faster ride) from Brisbane to Rockhampton and Cairns, making stops along the way in cities like Mackay, Prosperine and Townsville. Fares for trips departing from Cairns to Brisbane start at $161 AUD (about $151 USD); trips from Brisbane to Rockhampton start at $101.25 AUD (about $95 USD). Trains operating between Brisbane and Cairns run twice weekly, while trains from Brisbane to Bundaberg and Rockhampton run six days a week. (If you're looking to travel from Bundaberg or Rockhampton back to Brisbane, you can catch a ride daily.) Trains are equipped with sleeper berths, buffet and club cars, power outlets and built-in TVs. And if the thought of seeing all of Queensland via train travel appeals to you, Queensland Rail also offers vacation packages that range from four to 14 days in length, taking passengers everywhere from the reef to the outback.

Bus and Taxi

If you need to get from the airport to your hotel (and vice versa), Sun Palm Transport Group offers shuttle bus service from Cairns Airport to resorts in Cairns, Palm Cove, Port Douglas and the Northern Beaches. One-way tickets cost $14 to $44 AUD (approximately $13 to $42 USD), depending on your destination. Cairns Taxis also offers quick transport around the area, with a starting fee (or "flagfall") of $2.90 AUD (roughly $2.70 USD) and $2.23 AUD (around $2 USD) for every kilometer traveled. (Fees can fluctuate depending on the time of day and number of passengers.) If you're in the Whitsunday region, Whitsunday Transit offers airport transfers from Whitsunday Coast Airport, and transportation throughout Airlie Beach and Proserpine. Several coach buses, like Greyhound Australia, offer long-distance trips up and down the coast with trips from Cairns to Townsville costing as little as $59 AUD (about $56 USD) each way. But conditions can be cramped, which is why we suggest Queensland Rail if you're traveling longer distances.

Entry & Exit Requirements

You must have a valid U.S. passport and a visa to enter Australia. U.S. passport-holders who plan to be in Australia for fewer than 90 days are required to have an Electronic Travel Authority (ETA), which is an electronic, label-free visa. You can acquire one online through the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship's website, or your airline or travel agent can apply for an ETA on your behalf. For more information, visit the U.S. State Department's website.

Next Steps: Great Barrier Reef

U.S. News Airfare Finder

Find Best Airfares to
Great Barrier Reef

See best fares from Orbitz, Expedia, Kayak & more!
Round Trip One-Way Non-stop Only
Please enter missing information