Great Barrier Reef Travel Guide

Australia  #2 in Best Beaches in Australia

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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. But 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 Airport (CNS). Keep in mind, though, that you'll have to change planes in Sydney or Brisbane to get to Cairns from the U.S. 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 Airlines, Jetstar Airways 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 northern Queensland town of Mossman, with tourist towns like Palm Cove and Port Douglas in between, not to mention plenty of tropical scenery. You'll also find a fair amount of scenic drives along the Whitsundays coastline. Multiple rental agencies are stationed at Cairns Airport and Airlie Beach, which is located in central Queensland, about 386 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 calculate distances in kilometers. And if you're heading north, plan to fill up on gas – stations grow sparse the farther up the coast you travel.


For scenic island-hopping, consider booking a charter or plane tour with one of the reef's charter operators. GBR Helicopters, GSL Aviation and Air Whitsunday all offer transfers between Cairns Airport and the reef's islands starting at 189 Australian dollars ($140) per person. These same operators also offer sightseeing tours. For daylong tours that include island stopovers, consider GSL Aviation or Air Whitsunday.


Visitors who want to island-hop on a budget should consider traveling by boat. This mode of transportation doesn't include the breathtaking aerial views provided from a plane, but boats depart at more frequent intervals and offer everything from airport transport to day cruises. Roundtrip rides cost between AU$30 and AU$82 (about $22 to $61) per adult, depending on the departure and arrival locations. Travelers leaving from Cairns will likely depart from downtown's Reef Fleet Terminal. About 216 miles down the Queensland coast, visitors can hop on a SeaLink ferry in Townsville to reach Magnetic Island or Palm Island. For boating excursions to the Whitsunday Islands (specifically Long Island and Hamilton Island), plan on catching a boat at Shute Harbour, about 7 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 travel by Queensland Rail. Queensland Rail offers high-speed Tilt Trains (trains with "tilt technology" that enable a smoother, faster ride) from Brisbane to Bundaberg and Cairns, making stops along the way in cities like Mackay, Airlie Beach and Townsville. Fares Brisbane to Cairns trips start at AU$390 (about $290); rides from Brisbane to Bundaberg start at AU$49 (or roughly $36). Trains traveling between Brisbane and Cairns operate five days a week at 9 a.m. and 3:45 p.m., while Brisbane to Bundaberg train services are offered two days a week at 5:15 a.m. and 4:55 p.m. Available departure days vary depending on the route direction. Trains are equipped with sleeper berths, baggage and club cars, power outlets and overhead TV monitors. And if the thought of seeing all of Queensland via train travel is appealing, Queensland Rail also offers vacation packages that range from four to eight days in length, taking passengers everywhere from the reef to the outback.


An affordable way to get around Cairns, Rockhampton, Townsville and Magnetic Island is to ride one of Sunbus' shuttles. Ticket prices vary by zone, but one-way fares for Townsville and Magnetic Island cost AU$1.70 (or about $1) each, while one-way fares for Cairns and Rockhampton start at AU$2.20 (less than $2) per adult. If you're visiting the Whitsunday Islands, Whitsunday Transit offers airport transfers from Whitsunday Coast Airport (PPP), as well as transportation throughout Airlie Beach and Proserpine. And several coach bus companies, such as Greyhound Australia, are available for long-distance trips up and down the coast. This option is generally one of the cheapest ways to travel long distances – Greyhound Australia's Basic Saver Fares for one-way trips from Cairns to Townsville are AU$55 ($41) each – but conditions can be cramped, which is why we recommend using Queensland Rail.


Although pricey, visitors can get around cities by the reef via taxi. Taxi fares for weekdays between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. start at AU$2.90 ($2), but an additional charge of AU$2.26 per kilometer traveled (or less than $3 per mile) applies. Base meter fees increase to AU$4.30 (about $3) during public holidays, evenings (before midnight) and weekends from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and between midnight and 5 a.m. every day except ANZAC Day, rates start at AU$6.30 (nearly $5). Taxicabs can be hailed on the street, at the area's airports (extra charges may apply) or by calling ahead. Uber, the ride-sharing service, is available as well for traveling within Cairns and Townsville.

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