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A Complete 6-Week East Coast of Australia Touring Guide
Starting in Sydney and heading up to Cape Tribulation in Far North Queensland, self-driving the East Coast is one of the best touring routes in Australia. Tropical rain forests and spectacular hinterlands, the incredible Great Barrier Reef, Whitsunday Islands, and stunning beaches, it is little wonder this is such a popular road trip.
The Great Barrier Reef is the star attraction with a multitude of diving, snorkeling and sailing options to choose from. There is so much to discover on a road trip along the coast – whale watching, driving along miles of sandy beaches, heading inland to the outback regions…
Many travelers self-drive the East Coast as part of a Big Lap of Australia, taking a few months or even years to tour the country.
Our 6-week self-guided itinerary below explains what to expect when touring the east coast, highlights, and a few hidden gems. There will also be places to discover that we have not mentioned, which makes the journey all the better as a little ‘serendipity’ can be an awesome thing.
For travelers with more time, it will be easy to expand on this travel suggested itinerary and if less time is available it can be adapted to suit your own time frame.
Grab a real paper map, pin it to your wall and start planning your East Coast adventure.
East Coast Australia Map
How long do you need to travel East Coast Australia?
- 2 weeks – The journey can be done in two weeks, it is a squeeze to get the most out of the trip within that time frame, but it can be done if there is no more time available to you. The suggested itinerary below can be adapted easily by stopping in the recommended towns but spending less time.
- 4 weeks is the minimum, suggested, time to spend touring the East Coast from Cairns to Sydney.
- 6-Weeks would be our recommended time frame to comfortably enjoy everything the Coast has to offer. Even longer if you can. It would be so easy to spend months along the East Coast.
The drive covers 2,615 kilometers/ 1,625 miles from Sydney to Cairns. Include a drive north of Cairns to visit Cape Tribulation which is about 280 km return, plus a few other deviations during the journey, the miles driven and time needed to see everything soon add up.
Sydney, Cairns, and Brisbane all have international airports, using a flight finder such as Sky Scanner is a good way to source the best deals on international and local flights.
Find a list of all Australian airports by state here.
Is it expensive to travel in Australia?
Yes, it costs more to travel here than in our neighboring countries of South East Asia, but our wages and living expenses are higher. Does it cost much more than The U.K., most of Europe or North America? Not really, in our opinion.
Tours and activities can be pricey, travelers need to budget carefully. The East Coast has so many activities on offer – diving, sailing, bungy jumping, sky-diving… we have listed some of the best tours available in the itinerary below.
Petrol is about half of what it is in Europe. The whole East Coast trip from Cairns to Sydney is 2,615 km – to drive from Amsterdam to Gibraltar is 0ver 2,400 km. Not allowing for diversions on either route.
Accommodation can be expensive but we have many budget options. Free camping is plentiful and most of our campsites are usually open all year round.
Don’t be put off traveling here because of the constant comments about expenses. Be savvy when you travel.
East Coast Australia Weather
The temperature in Tropical North Queensland is an average of approximately 29°C (85°F) all year-round. The temperature fluctuations between the summer and winter seasons are a lot less than in Europe or North America.
The rainy season rolls in during December, January, and February so it tends to be really wet and humid up in tropical Queensland. Not ideal weather for touring as the waters get murky, visibility for snorkeling and diving is poor and sailing the Whitsunday Islands would not be quite so much fun, perhaps. This does mean it is the low tourist season though so accommodation and rental prices will usually be less. It is also jellyfish and stingers season up north, which means swimming is not safe unless wearing a ‘stinger suit’ or swimming in safe inland rivers or netted beaches (read more below).
- October/November are generally dry months though winds can be strong and the Stingers and Jellyfish start arriving (see below).
- June/July/August/September tend to be the most favored months for an east coast holiday as the days are warm, generally sunny with blue skies. Awesome weather for a vacation.
- March/April/May can tend to be quite hot still but usually pleasant for traveling.
Warnings – Jelly Fish, Dingoes & Crocodiles
Jelly Fish and Stingers can pose a serious threat to swimmers up north during the summer months. Pay attention to signage and be aware of the dangers. Read more about Dangerous Animals in Oz.
Dingoes are quite common in some areas up north and in Central Australia/Northern Territory. Our native dog does not necessarily pose a threat to humans BUT –
- Do not feed them or try to get close.
- Do not leave food out at night in areas that have dingoes.
- Read more about them here.
Crocodiles – Saltwater (or Estuarine) crocodiles (Crocodylus porosus) are the world’s largest living reptile species, growing up to 6m long and weighing up to a tonne.
It may sound like you will be taken by a Dingo, eaten by a croc or stung by a jellyfish in Australia, take care, be sensible and heed cautions in the limited areas that these animals may pose a threat and you will be fine.
Don’t be put off coming down under for an adventure, it really is not so dangerous in Australia – we don’t have bears at least!
Renting a Motor Home or Car
Hiring a car or campervan to tour the East Coast or anywhere in the country is a good option. Getting onto the open road and exploring at your own pace means stopping when and wherever you please.
DriveNow is one of the best websites search for a good price across different vehicle rental companies. Simply enter the required dates etc. and a page will display showing all the different hire prices for cars and motorhomes from all the major companies. You are then taken through the secure booking process.
Buying a Car or Camper Van / Motor Home
Having your own vehicle is one of the best ways to travel around Australia. Before leaping into buying a car or even beginning your search, read this article for some really useful information and tips.
Travellers Auto Barn is a good place to research buying a vehicle as they offer a set buyback price when the trip is finished, which takes the stress out of selling.
Joining a Facebook Group for buying or selling a car is also a good idea, Backpacker Cars Australia is a large group with plenty of vehicles on offer.
East Coast Bus Tours
A range of value packed adventure tour options within Australia can be booked through specialist online travel agents such as the Trip Advisor Company – Viator.
A Sydney to Cairns ‘Hop On – Hop Off Bus Pass is an ideal way to see the coast. Stay with the same group or stop and start as you please.
Sydney to Cairns travel pass, guidance, flexibility and adventure! Hop-on and hop-off anywhere along the way, experiencing amazing off the beaten track locations on the east coast of Australia along the way. Learn about the history, culture and best nightlife spots from your fun, local guide and make new friends from all over the world. Travel by mini-coach from Sydney to Noosa and then on comfortable, fast trains. Visit remote communities, kayak through a marine reserve and take part in other amazing activities. Learn about Australia’s incredible culture, while taking in its mind-blowing scenery from the world’s best beaches, historic towns and dense rainforest.
A fully guided tour bus option from Sydney to Cairns taking 14 days is another option to consider.
Explore the East Coast of Australia in a small group, with a locally owned & operated company that loves nature, food, wine & the friendly faces that we work closely with. Includes nature based activities each day and the chance to relax with some “Me Time” too. Sleep well in hand picked 3 & 4 star accommodation. Must be 18+ to travel on the tour unless an approved minor (8+ years old) is accompanied by an adult. There is not age limit, but all guest must be young in spirit & active enough to participate daily in light to medium walks, some lasting up to 2 hours.
Great Barrier Reef Snorkeling & Scuba Diving Cruises
Boat cruises operate from a number of destinations along the coast offering a variety of options from 1 day to multi-day trips.
We have some highly rated options for snorkeling and diving trips listed below in the itinerary. Browse lots of snorkeling and diving tours to get an idea of what is on offer.
Costs can very soon add up when traveling, as everyone knows. Accommodation is a major expense to factor into vacation budgets and finding ways to cut costs will save $$’s that can be spent on other fun things instead. We have some recommended places to stay in the itinerary below – Hotels, resorts, backpacker hostels, camping, dog-friendly places…
Free Camping Queensland and New South Wales
Australia is a country with a great range of free camping grounds and low-cost campsites, use the Wiki Camps App to find suggestions. It is a good idea to aim to arrive early in the afternoon if looking for a site in a free camp during the busy season as they can fill up quickly. People often leave late morning, so arriving around midday or soon after is a good plan.
Free campsites usually have basic toilet facilities, do not expect running water as a rule. Some sites will require campers to be totally self-sufficient. Check details of campsite facilities before arriving, if possible (using the WikiCamps App).
Food Costs – Eating out on the East Coast & Saving Money
It costs to eat whether you are at home or traveling. Naturally. But it is possible to save money.
Food can cost a lot, not being careful and dining out will add $$’s to any budget if it is done too often. It is certainly easy to find cheap places to eat as well as fine dining restaurants in Australia. Have a look at grocery prices here to get an idea of food costs compared to where you live.
We have cafes and restaurants that are as good as any in the world, coffee is usually great and Aussies love a cuppa. Having your own portable cook stove, using a thermal cooker to prepare meals and packing a coffee maker will save a lot of money – you can then choose the view you want to have when dining!
Drinking out a lot will quickly deplete any budget, though some of the Aussie Pubs are well worth a visit to meet locals and get a feel for the country, look for the type of pub where the locals drink for a bit of Australian flavor.
Wine boxes are very popular here and will often be referred to as ‘Goon’. They are mostly quite a respectable drink, practical and economical. They are often talked of as something to drink when really desperate and that the quality is poor – not at all. Read more about the history of cask wine over the past 50 years in Australia.
Free BBQ’s are often available in parks around the country, or certainly available for a low cost. Perhaps pick up some groceries and have a bbq. Take advantage of camp kitchens at campsites.
6-WEEK EAST COAST AUSTRALIA TOURING ITINERARY
This suggested 6-week touring itinerary can be adapted to whatever time frame is available, it takes in the very best of the East Coast of Australia and allows enough time to really get to know the country.
Touring routes from Melbourne to Sydney can be found here, with options to drive via the coast or over the mountains and High Country regions.
Sydney – 3 Days
The capital city of New South Wales and one of the world’s most spectacular cities. Sydney offers so much and can keep visitors busy for weeks with spectacular walks, the famous Opera House, the Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb (or walk across) and spectacular beaches. Read more about things to do in Sydney.
Sydney to the Blue Mountains – 1 Hour
Blue Mountains – 1 Day
After experiencing Sydney, the 1-hour drive to the gorgeous Blue Mountains is like a breath of fresh air. Spectacular vistas and walking tracks. Stay a night in the mountains before continuing North towards Newcastle and Port Macquarie.
The Blue Mountains to Port Macquarie – 4 h 35 min (422 km) via M1
Port Macquarie – 1 Day
Port Macquarie offers plenty to see and do, National Parks, beaches and wildlife. More time can easily be spent here, depending on your own schedule.
The drive from Port Macquarie to the mountain area of Dorrigo is fairly quick, there is plenty do, visiting the beaches and towns along the way. Nambucca Heads is a fabulous town and worth visiting (as are so many of the little towns along the way).
Port Macquarie to The Waterfall Way & Dorrigo – 2 h (172 km)
The Waterfall Way – 2 Days
This drive is simply stunning! Loads of walks and waterfalls that can be explored over one day or more. Two days in the National Park will definitely be easy to do. Drop into the Bellingen information center for maps and information on road conditions.
From Dorrigo, you have a couple of options either continue north over the mountains of return to the coast and pass through Coffs Harbour which is another lovely town, home to the ‘Big Banana’!
The Waterfall Way to Yamba – 2h 40 (approx 200 km )
Yamba – 2 Days
A very popular town with a great vibe and so much to see. The beaches are excellent, plenty of surfing and visitors can watch fur seals play on the rocks.
The Hickey Island Reserve is a good spot for families to enjoy safe swimming and dolphins can often be seen there too.
Yamba to Byron Bay – 1 Hour 40 mins (124 km)
Byron Bay – 2 Days
Byron used to be an idyllic, sleepy, little town until it became incredibly popular and a ‘must-see’ destination for travelers. It is much busier these days but still has a great feel to it and is worth spending some time in the beaches are awesome, the walk out to the Cape Byron Lighthouse is a good hike and a drive up into the hinterland to visit the quirky little town of Nimbin is definitely a must-do.
Driving Tip for UK/European visitors: Do not park on the roadside facing oncoming traffic as you can in your own countries, it is illegal in Australia and people do get fined. Friends of ours recently had this bad experience when parking very briefly to check into their hotel in Byron Bay. It was their first day with a hire car and an expensive, sickening, lesson in Australian road rules.
Byron Bay to Brisbane – 2 hours (166 km)
Brisbane or The Gold Coast – 2 Days
The drive north from Byron to Brisbane is not long but there is a lot to see and do along the way. Driving via the Border Ranges is one of our favorite road-trips. Climb Mt Warning, the first place in Australia that the sun touches each morning.
It is decision time, either head to Brisbane if you want to include another city on the route, it is a lovely city with plenty to see. Stop in at the Gold Coast with theme parks and the famous ‘Surfers Paradise’ beach… or travel on up towards Noosa perhaps…
Brisbane to Noosa – 1 Hour 45 mins (141 km)
Noosa – 2 Days
Noosa is awesome. A very sweet town with such a fabulous vibe. Beaches galore, rivers to explore, hinterland and loads of walks in the National Park, it is little wonder many Victorians like to head up to this area during the winter months down south.
Noosa to Rainbow Beach – 1 Hour 40 min (134 km)
Rainbow Beach and Fraser Island – 3 Days
Some travelers might prefer to bypass Noosa and drive direct to Rainbow Beach and spend more time in this little town as it is laid back though still has a lovely buzz about it.
As one of the two main departures points to the largest sand island in the world, Fraser Island, Rainbow Beach is a perfect destination for a few days to chill out. Horse ride along the beach, discover the colored sands, sky-dive… home to the longest surf break in Australia!
One of the absolute highlights of an East Coast adventure! Stunning beaches, eucalypt forests, freshwater creeks, miles of beach to drive along, sand dunes to ‘surf’ down and a variety of accommodation options to choose from. It is little wonder Fraser Island is so popular.
Visitors can go to Fraser as solo adventurers, in ‘tag-a-long’ tour groups, join 4 wheel drive bus tours for a day trip or longer or even catch the ferry and go on foot. The island is about 123 km (76 m) and approximately 22 km (14m) wide. It became a World Heritage Site in 1992.
Tag-along Tours to Fraser Island
A Tag-along tour simply means you get to play ‘follow the leader’ driving a 4 wheel drive vehicle and learning about driving on the sand with the safety of expert help if you get stuck.
Pippies Beachouse is one highly recommended company to join for this type of adventure, they provide Toyota Land Cruisers, accommodation on the Island, meals and all the planning needed to get there. They also have a hostel and apartments in Rainbow Beach where they are based. Read about their tour options, accommodation deals and local information here.
Rainbow Beach to Bundaberg – 2 hours 30 mins (203 km)
Bundaberg – 2 Days
Famous for Bundaberg Rum, this little town is a worthy inclusion on a tour up the coast, it is at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef. Visit the distillery and do a tour perhaps.
Learn about turtles, spot whales, do some diving and explore the region. There is plenty to see and do.
Stop in at Maryborough on the way, the birthplace of Pamela Travers, author of Mary Poppins and home to the Mary Poppins Festival each year.
Bundaberg to Town of 1770 / Agnes Water – 1 hour 22 min (122 Km)
Town of 1770 & Agnes Water
This is just a short drive from Bundaberg, so you could easily make this your destination rather than Bundaberg. It is a great spot to visit and one of the highlights of the Town of 1770 is to join the Scooter Roo Mini Chopper motorbike tour of the town. Put on a real leather jacket and be part of a motorbike ‘gang’!
LARC! Tours is another great activity for visitors. Is it a boat? Is it a truck? They are famous for their bright pink amphibious craft that takes passengers on the water and across the sand dunes where you can even experience the thrill of sandboarding down a dune and into the sea!
Town of 1770 to Rockhampton – 2 hours 30 min (225 km)
Rockhampton – 1 Day