Far North Queensland on the Cheap

Cairns, Port Douglas, the Daintree and the Atherton Tablelands

Far North Queensland is the end of the Australian east coast journey for some, and only the beginning for others. Some will be set on blowing their budget before heading home, while for others the saving is just starting. We began our trip in Cairns, so we had to get used to the high prices of Oz pretty fast. The north is not as expensive in general as the south, but it’s still pretty pricey.

Luckily, there are a few ways to scrimp and save on expenses out here. Some of these tips can be applied to the whole of Australia, but others are more specific to Far North Queensland. Read on to find out how you could save yourself a few dollars!

Cape Tribulation

General Tips

Eating

Backpacking Australia is different, in my opinion, from backpacking most other countries. Because of the expense of – well, pretty much everything – cooking for yourself is by far the cheapest and best way of eating. For this reason, most hostels are set up to provide for cooking. Even so, make sure that you book hostels with the appropriate facilities. Free breakfasts, tea and coffee are also handy, as long as the price of the hostel isn’t higher as a result of these perks.

Most hostels will have a ‘free food’ box. Take advantage of this! Have a look through before you go grocery shopping, so you can see what you can get without buying it. Salt, pepper and oil are examples of fairly ubiquitous items in free food baskets. We made the mistake of buying oil early on but there was really no need!

Get yourself a cool bag as soon as you have any sort of food collection. It makes life a lot easier, as they are easy to carry from place to place, and (to some extent) keep your food fresher for longer.

 

Transport

Greyhound buses are one of the cheapest ways to get from place to place if you are planning on doing the whole east coast. We got get a Cairns – Sydney (or vice versa) 3 month pass for £213 (roughly $340AUD AUD). The price depends on the season, but generally this is a good deal. It may sound like a lot, but when you consider that a one-hour shuttle from Cairns to Port Douglas costs $28AUD (and the east coast of Australia is a fairly long way), you’ll realise that it’s worth it.

However, another popular way to get around, particularly if you are travelling for a while, is to buy a campervan. People sell them at either end of the coast, and sometimes in between, and often you can get a great deal with lots included. This can also save you money on accommodation: there are some free campsites along the way, and caravan parks can be cheaper than hostels.

Unfortunately sleeping in your van in the road is illegal in Oz, so you do so at your own risk. A hefty fine is unappealing for the average budget backpacker!

 

Cairns

There’s a reason they call Cairns ‘the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef’. There’s not a lot going on in the city itself. For this reason, it can be quite expensive to hang around there because all there is to do is eat out, go out, and embark on expensive (but amazing!) reef trips.

 

Reef Tours

First of all, you can save by shopping around for your reef tours. This slightly depends on what exactly you want out of your trip, but there will be some room for manoeuvre whatever your needs. There are hundreds of leaflets advertising different boat trips, and the majority of these will have prices splashed across one of the pages. This price is not necessarily what you will actually pay, but it’s a good idea to have a look so you know realistically what your budget is. The supposed price of our reef tour was $203AUD, but we ended up paying around $170AUD for it.

speedboat floating in the coral sea

Use an agent

The best way to save is to book your trip through an agent. If you go direct to the tour company, the leaflet price is what you pay. Tour companies expect and encourage people to book through travel agents, and this is where the best deals are.

There are loads of agencies dotted around Cairns. Spend a bit of time going round a few, and seeing what they can do to persuade you to book through them. Don’t get sucked in by any one person, though: there is no reason that you can’t come back later.

To save even more money, book more than one trip at a time. This way the agent will have more incentive to knock the price down a bit. We booked the reef, the Whitsundays and Fraser Island through Greyhound, and saved over $100AUD each.

If you take the same three trips around to a few different agents, you’ve got some bargaining power as you will already know what you can get. You want to make the agent work harder to get your money, by shaving more dollars off the price!

Work for a trip

Another option if you have some flexibility is to ask around about working in exchange for a trip. Some boats will need extra hands for catering and cleaning, and if you’re lucky you can then get the opportunity to snorkel or dive in exchange for a few hours’ labour. We met one girl who got to scuba dive twice just by working on a boat for the day – no particular skills required!

Going Out

One of the big sellers of Cairns is its reputation as a party place. Whether this is because it tends to be the last stopping point before people head back home, or because there’s not much else going on, it’s a good place to check out the nightlife. However, drinking in Australia tends to be very, very expensive. But there are still a few sneaky ways to save here.

The first is to drink in your hostel before you go out. It’s a pretty obvious point, but well worth doing. A cheap box of wine (or ‘goon’ as it’s called here) can cost you as little as $13AUD. That’s 4 litres of alcohol. Grab some friends, sit around a table and play some card games, and your night out is already cheaper.

Another option is to get involved in some sort of organised night out. Some hostels will do this kind of thing, but a few travel agencies do as well. The draw here is that these people can get you drinks and other perks like club entry for free. Obviously they expect you to buy drinks too, but if you’re careful you can easily have an entirely free night. We went on a Tuesday organised by Paradise Tours, and got free goon, free jugs of cider or beer and pizza at Gilligan’s, and free entry and five free drinks at the Woolshed. We didn’t buy anything that whole night!

It’s also, unfortunately, a lot easier to do this if you’re a girl. The free drinks in the Woolshed were girls-only. Sorry boys, but it might just be a bit more expensive for you!

Port Douglas

Port Douglas is a beautiful, beautiful place, which deserves more recognition than it gets. An hour north of Cairns, it often gets skipped out on an east coast trip – but it shouldn’t be!

Unfortunately, it costs $28AUD for a shuttle bus to get there. This seems unreasonable.

However, there are a couple of options here. One is to incorporate a stay in Port Douglas into your Daintree or Atherton Tablelands car rental trip (see below). This way you aren’t paying separately just to get there.

Another option is to stay at Port Douglas Backpackers (which I would recommend anyway!), who provide a free shuttle on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Obviously this means you’d have to time your stay well, but if you have some flexibility this may be worthwhile.

Port Douglas park

The Daintree & Cape Tribulation

The Daintree is the oldest rainforest in the world. Cape Tribulation is the point at which this rainforest meets the Great Barrier Reef. Both are pretty special. However, if you choose to go on an organised tour, it can set you back upwards of $100AUD – which may seem a bit steep for a day trip.

The best way around this is to self-drive round these attractions. Hiring a car is cheap, particularly if you’re in a group, and you can save money this way. Our car from All Day Car Rentals cost $130AUD for two days (with optional excess reduction for an extra $20AUD per day). Between three of us that was a significant saving (around $130AUD in total). Pack a picnic lunch in your cool bag and you’re all set for a cheap day out!

Shop around for the best price, but make sure you go with a company you trust. You could end up paying more than you bargain for otherwise. It also goes without saying that you should always take pictures of your vehicle before you get in it, and read through all the paperwork first.

CROC TOURS

One popular thing to do on the Daintree day trip is to take a river cruise to spot crocodiles. There is a good stopping point for this just 500m or so before the ferry crossing point. Different companies have different timings for their tours. Choose the one that best coincides with your arrival if you’re in a rush, or if you want to save an extra $5AUD go with Solar Whisper: their hour tour on an eco-friendly solar-powered boat costs $20AUD compared to Crocodile Express’ $25AUD. However, if you fancy doing another tour at a different site, Crocodile Express offers a second tour for free. This would be worth it if you’re staying around the Daintree for a couple of days.

FERRY

The one extra expense that you’ll come across on this trip is the ferry across the Daintree River. This costs $26 return, and is pretty annoying if you come across it unexpected! However, we managed to get free ferry tickets from our hostel (Port Douglas Backpackers), and so avoided this cost. It just goes to show what you can get by chatting to receptionists!

Atherton Tablelands

Like the Daintree, there are loads of tours on offer from Cairns to the Tablelands. Again, though, you can save money by driving yourself. There is nothing on offer in the Atherton Tablelands that cannot be reached under your own steam, so essentially what you are paying for on a tour is the privilege of being driven from place to place (and maybe some fun new mates).

Self-driving also has the added advantage of giving you more control over which stops you make. There are loads to choose from! Not being restricted by an itinerary means that you can choose your favourite spot to have lunch, or read up on the best little-known lookouts and least touristy spots.
The towns in and around the Tablelands are fairly limited in things to do, but if you fancy an afternoon tea break the scones in Atherton McDonald’s Cafe are surprisingly cheap ($1.95!).

You can also stock up on mini pots of jam and honey for the road there if you’re a grubby backpacker like me. Macca’s is also great for the WiFi – a tip which holds for pretty much the rest of the world as well!Babinda boulders, Atherton Tablelands

 

Conclusions

Overall I would strongly recommend hiring a car and doing the Tablelands and the Daintree at your own pace. There are places to stay further north than Port Douglas and a lot to see along the way. You could easily spend a couple of days around there, doing various hikes and going to all the different lookout points. The trek up to the lookout near Mount Sorrow is really worthwhile and there’s the opportunity to do a lot of wildlife spotting along the way – but it’s a fair few hours’ roundtrip and so couldn’t easily be done if you just have the one day.

The main thing is to get going early so you don’t have to rush to get anywhere before dark. The roads back to civilisation aren’t that pleasant in the pitch black, especially if you are unfamiliar with the area. Cassowaries are a fairly frequent sight along the Daintree in particular, and they will do a lot of damage to your car if you run into them!

Far North Queensland may seem like it’s going to burn a hole in your pocket. There are a lot of amazing things to see and do. But it doesn’t have to if you’re careful with how you go about it. Shop in the supermarket for meals, rent a car, and see what things you can get for free. And trust me, you will certainly surprise yourself with all the savings you can make!

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