How To Plan A Trip To The Great Barrier Reef

Alyssa Ramos on August 8th, 2018

Not going to lie, I have been extremely aggressive and obnoxious lately when it comes to ticking off items on my never-ending bucketlist!

This time, it was diving the Great Barrier Reef, which I decided to do just two weeks after hiking Mt. Kilimanjaro, and with only a couple days planning in advance!

I was already headed to Sydney anyway, and not entirely sure how to even get to the Great Barrier Reef, but with the threat of Climate Change destroying the World-famous natural wonder, I knew I had to find a way to see it and learn how to help save it!

So here’s everything you need to know to plan your trip to the Great Barrier Reef! And please, with all of your travels, be conscious of being an eco-friendly traveler!

How to Get to a Great Barrier Reef-Accessible Area:

There are several areas that you can base yourself out of to take a trip out to the Great Barrier Reef. I didn’t exactly have time to research the best one, so I simply found the reef on the map, and looked for the closest town with an airport to it.

That town was Cairns in Tropical North Queensland (northern Australia), which also happened to be known for its rainforest and waterfalls, so in my opinion it was a double win! It also happens to be known for its large crocodile population…eek!

Anyway! From Sydney I found a fairly cheap flight up to Cairns, and booked it the same day I left because I really wanted to go diving the next day due to weather reports. The flight is only about 2.5 hours!

Sidenote: if you don’t already know, Sydney is super expensive! But if you want a delicious meal and drinks, and you have a Priority Pass, you can get a $37 AUD meal/drink voucher for the airport restaurants!

Best Time to Go:

The weather also made it hectic for me and my last minute plans…according to the forecast, there was only one day out of the four I was there that was supposed to not rain! I also went in March, which isn’t the best month to go anyway.

So when is the best time to go? According to locals it’s around August, which is technically the peak of winter, but the temps are only around 79 degrees F. Remember that the seasons are opposite from the US since we’re in different hemispheres.

They say June-July are good too but also the busiest with tourists. In August it’s less busy, good weather, and clear skies. BUT, if you’re like me and you don’t exactly plan things in advance, I’d recommend constantly checking the weather reports!

Where to Stay in Cairns:

Usually I have pretty good luck with finding discounts and deals on accommodations, but I can’t say so much for my experience in Cairns unfortunately. I opted for a $50 motel rather than a slightly more expensive hotel, and can honestly say, I got what I paid for.

I’m not going to go into full details, but let’s just say for the first time in my life I was scared shitless in the middle of the night by someone continuously knocking on my door…and the motel didn’t have any security (I usually don’t speak negatively about hotels but they also didn’t acknowledge my email complaint, so to help you not have the same experience, don’t stay at Cairns Rainbow Reef Resort).

Also the location of it required expensive Ubers (it was raining most of the time or I’d walk), which I pretty much could have just used the same amount of money to stay at a nicer, more safe place. They called this area “Motel Row”, which is a row of motels on Sheridan Street.

That being said, I’d highly recommend staying closer to the main town area, which is near the pier. The pier is where you’ll leave for your Great Barrier Reef trips anyway, and is also where all of the restaurants, bars, and shops are.

Usually I will stay in a hotel, but for those who are into it — there’s a lot of popular backpackers and hostels as well.

To avoid disappointment I would recommend using a local travel agent based in Cairns, here is one - Cairns Holiday Specialists

Getting Around Cairns:

As I mentioned above, Uber exists in Cairns and it is cheaper than a taxi, though still not cheap. A 4 minute ride from the main city to my sketchy motel was usually between $8-11 AUD! It’s cheaper than the taxi and shuttle to the airport too, unless you’re in a surge.

If you want to explore farther out of town or go to the rainforests, or popular Port Douglas area, you should consider booking a tour that will take you up there. Which brings me to...

Which Tour Companies to Use:

Luckily there’s a really easy way to find EVERY dive, snorkel, jungle, helicopter, etc. tour in the Great Barrier Reef area; appropriately named, it’s a company called Barrier Reef Australia!

You can enter your dates, number of people, and what you’re looking for, and it will pull up all of the available tours that fit your criteria. Since I was trying to book something last minute, it was a bit hectic trying to compare the best options, but after my experience I now have definite recommendations!

Best Diving Company for Great Barrier Reef:

When comparing diving companies for the Great Barrier Reef, after looking at the prices, you’ll definitely want to consider the boat’s capacity of passengers. Bigger boats means more people, which can be more crowded and hectic. But it can also mean less rocking for those of you who get sea sick!

But I wanted a smaller, less crowded experience, and also just so happened to have met someone in Sydney who put me in contact with a Dive Master in Cairns, who got me a diving spot with Passions of Paradise last minute!

I absolutely loved Passions of Paradise and my entire diving experience with them. Especially because they were so environmentally conscious and just fun to be around in general!

My dive buddy Brian (also from California!) and I got to go on a dive on our own, which made my Great Barrier Reef experience even more incredible since we didn’t have to wait for a group! Passions also has an AMAZING underwater photographer named Soto, who snapped the epic underwater pictures of me!

Cost for the full day of diving (7am to 5pm) with two one-hour dives at two different outer reef spots, plus buffet lunch was around $200 AUD. Again totally worth it if you want a smaller crowd!

Note: I have my PADI Open Water Diving Certification but most of the people on the ship were doing Introductory Dives! So if you haven’t gone diving before, the Great Barrier Reef would be an epic place to try it out! You also have the option of just snorkeling!

PRO TIP: If you’re planning on going diving and using a GoPro, you MUST get a waterproof case for it or it will break (even though it says it’s waterproof) and you should also get a “red filter” otherwise your photos will just come out all blue. I listed both items in the Travel Gear section below!

Helicopter Rides:

Very sadly, I wasn’t able to book a helicopter ride last minute. But it’s Ok because the weather wasn’t ideal for photos or seeing in the water anyway. The helicopter rides are short and I would recommend doing them if you have perfect sunny weather, otherwise you won’t see very much!

Many tours include the option to do half boat cruise, half helicopter, or even full helicopter to the reef, which is ideal if you don’t want to be on a boat all day. But NOTE! If you plan on scuba diving, you cannot fly after you dive!

The boats take two hours to get out to the reef, and helicopters take about 15-25 minutes. You can compare the different options for helicopter tours using Barrier Reef Australia.

Rainforest Tours:

One of the most famous rainforests in Tropical North Queensland is the Daintree, and it’s definitely worth a visit if you want to see some untouched nature! It rained the entire time I was on my tour but I kept just telling myself, “Well, it is the RAINforest…”

The tour company I went with was The Adventure Company which I also found through Great Barrier Reef, and I have to give a massive shout out to our guide and driver Daniel! The guy drove a full bus around from 7am-6:30pm and had a great attitude and informative commentary the entire time!

Right after I was picked up, we passed an entire field of wild kangaroos. Enough said. Then a two hour drive later and we were in the Daintree/Cape Trib area.

Our first stop was actually to a zoo…which I have to be honest, I’m not a fan off (zoos in general), but I can’t deny how insanely happy I was when a Wallaby decided to just hop up to me and even let me pet it! This was also my only chance to see Koalas …did you know they sleep 18 hours a day??

After that we were supposed to go to a gorge, but the rain was too heavy and we ended up going on a nature walk instead. It was a lovely little boardwalk  which looped through lush underbrush, mangrove nurseries, and ran along a river.

Lunch was next and was a really pleasantly surprise! The food was gourmet, and served at the cutest little jungle lodge on the beach! We couldn’t go in the water there though…since there was a box-jellyfish warning.

Unfortunately the rain did not let up for the next portion of the trip; a river cruise. This made the cruise quite the adventure since the objective of it was crocodile spotting! I literally felt like I was in a Jurassic Park movie! We only saw a couple of baby crocs though…thank god.

I definitely would go back to this area to see the waterfalls, so if you have time, see if there’s a tour that will take you to one or some!

NOTE: There are also A LOT of mosquitos in this area because it is a Rainforest!!! Make sure you bring bug spray!

Local Places to Go in Cairns:

It was mostly flooding and storming for me, but I still made it a point to attempt going out and doing things around Cairns City. It’s a fun little area, albeit obviously touristy, but definitely worth checking out!

Here’s a few places I went to:

The Pier Bar: my dive buddy Brian and his friends were all going here after our day of diving so I gladly joined in! It’s a nice bar and restaurant right next to the pier where the dive boats are, that always seems to be popping! It’s also (in my opinion) more upscale than most of the other places in town.

The Night Market: I found this place because it was pouring rain, and one of the only places indoors. Essentially it’s a small market with rows of stalls selling souvenirs from both China, and some locally handmade. Definitely check out the local artisans first. There’s also an entire row of stalls offering massages, and then a small foot court area.

Cairns City Center: basically the area all around the Night Market is a bunch of little restaurants and bars. It was pretty lively, even for a rainy evening, and I ended up finding a really good falafel stall.

The Lagoon: Since there’s no beach in Cairns (more like a swamp/beach with a big warning sign saying not to go near it since there’s crocodiles) the city instead built a really nice “lagoon”. Unlike real lagoons, this one is man-made (to make up for the lack of beach) with clear water, and swim up shelves you can sit on. It’s right in the center of the pier, night market, and city center.

Rusty’s Market: A local food market on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Ends early though.

Well, this was my trip to Tropical North Queensland... What do you think? Tempted... ring Barrier Reef Australia on 1300 231 118

Alyssa Ramos

Alyssa Ramos

Alyssa is a full time solo adventure traveler who turned her love for traveling and writing into a self-made career as a travel blogger and social media influencer. She's been to 84 countries, all 7 continents, as well as all 7 New World Wonders, and 7 Wonders of Nature. She also recently climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro then went diving at the Great Barrier Reef. Alyssa is bucketlist buster, and believes she has mastered the art of chasing waterfalls, traveling solo, packing light, and making affordable-traveling look good.

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