Cairns and Port Douglas on a Budget

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Cairns is an awesome jumping off point from which to explore the Great Barrier Reef and the tropical rainforests of Queensland.

I visited over Easter this year and spent way too much on flights, which is why I worked hard to keep costs under control on the rest of the trip.

Here are my tips for frugal travel and sightseeing in Cairns and Port Douglas.

Cairns and Port Douglas on a budget. Photo by KMJPhotography Australia
Cairns. Photo by KMJPhotography Australia

You will be spoiled for choice when it comes to eating out in Cairns. There are lots of budget takeaways, though I reckon it’s worth splurging a little and indulging in some of the local seafood. There is no shortage of pubs and restaurants in town, many of which offer pretty substantial earlybird discounts (eg order before 6pm and get 25% off).

Cairns and Port Douglas on a Budget: Cheap eats in Cairns. Photo by Jonathan Lin
Cheap eats in Cairns. Photo by Jonathan Lin

Your best bet for cheap accommodation in Cairns is in the backpacking hostels. The more central your accommodation, the more expensive it’s likely to be. However, Cairns is pretty walkable – it’s flat and everything is within a reasonable distance. Some of the more out-of-the-way hostels offer free shuttle bus services, or you could rent a bike to get around more easily.

Cairns and Port Douglas on a Budget: Gilligans hostel Cairns. Photo by Fridy
Gilligans hostel Cairns. Photo by Fridy

You can’t go to Cairns and skip a trip out to the Great Barrier Reef.

The hard part is deciding what tour operator to book with. If you’re staying in commercial accommodation, the desk staff can probably help out with recommendations, or you can turn to Google and TripAdvisor.

Reef trips can be pricey! Generally, the cheaper reef tours go out with larger groups on bigger boats, while you’ll pay a little more for a smaller, more personal experience. It all depends what your priorities are and what kind of excursion you’d like (I’m not at my best off land, so decided to splash out for a higher end tour and was stoked with the treatment we got).

Keep an eye out too for extras – some will charge extra for gear like optical masks and wetsuits while others include these in the total cost, and then there’s the reef fees on top of that. I found that often the cheaper tours were all-inclusive – some even advertised an introductory dive at no extra cost.

Cairns and Port Douglas on a Budget: Great Barrier Reef tour. Photo by Paul Toogood
Great Barrier Reef tour. Photo by Paul Toogood

For a change of scene, head over to the Botanical Gardens.

The Red Arrow walk takes around half an hour, climbing through rainforest to an epic lookout at the top. You can then continue on along the Blue Arrow track if you’re so inclined.

Further afield, a lesser known spot is Crystal Cascades – there’s no public transport here – about half an hour’s drive from Cairns. A paved track runs through the forest, with steps leading down to a number of waterholes and waterfalls at several points along the way.

Cairns and Port Douglas on a Budget: Cairns Crystal Cascades. Photo by wherewerewe91
Cairns Crystal Cascades. Photo by wherewerewe91

While you’re in Cairns, you might as well head up to Port Douglas too. It’s just an hour’s drive (or there are bus services) north along the coast.

A must-do here is visiting the Mossman Gorge. Part of the World Heritage-listed Daintree National Park, it’s an easily accessible introduction to the tropical rainforest.

There’s a frequent shuttle bus, but if you’d rather save your cash, make the journey from the visitor centre up to the gorge on foot. It’s only a few kilometres, but it can be hot and humid.

At the gorge you’ll find a couple of easy-to-follow tracks winding through the forest.

Cairns and Port Douglas on a Budget: Mossman Gorge. Photo by R Reeve
Mossman Gorge. Photo by R Reeve

Finally, if you happen to be here on a Wednesday, Port Douglas yacht club members volunteer their time and yachts to take members of the public out sailing at sunset. Head over to the club from 4pm for your chance to get on board.

Cairns and Port Douglas on a Budget: Port Douglas sailing. Photo by matlacha
Port Douglas sailing. Photo by matlacha

Featured image by Kyle Taylor

Cairns and Port Douglas on a Budget was last modified: April 27th, 2016 by Esther Goh
Author: Esther Goh (56 posts)

Writer and digital specialist hooked on travel and food. Calls Auckland home but desperately misses Mexican and Italian cuisine. Esther blogs at NZ Muse.