Backpacking Whitsundays is on top of most backpackers bucket list when planning an East Coast trip of Australia.
The Whitsunday Islands are a compilation of Islands off the central coast of Queensland, situated within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. They have some of the most pristine beaches and water the country has to offer. One of the most sort after being Whitehaven Beach, a beach that lives up to all the hype.
Since most of the area is within a protected National Park; the reef will be colourful and beautiful, accompanied by equally bright and diverse marine life. This makes the Whitsundays perfect for snorkelling and diving.
Our guide to backpacking Whitsundays
In this guide, you will get all the information you need to make this destination one of your most memorable experiences. Our Whitsunday Island memories will last us forever and it is one for the highlights of our East Coast road trip.
We will give you tips to save money, the best companies to book a tour with and which ones to avoid. Making sure you have the same, if not, better experience than we did.
Best time to visit Whitsundays
The best time to visit Whitsundays would be during September or October.
This is the peak season so expect to fork out a little bit more. It is worth it though as there are mostly clear blue skies, a comfortable temperature and light breezes.
The worst time to visit would be during November – January.
Temperatures can get really high as well as the humidity, with cyclones and tropical showers more likely. We would advise not to travel during these times from personal experience. The temperature was unbearable at times, making us drip from places no human should drip from.
It doesn’t help at night and sleeping on a tight sailboat. If you haven’t slept on a sailboat before, you won’t have the luxury of a queen-size bed. We felt like a tin of sweaty sardines.
Money-saving tip: If you can deal with the temperature, January – March is the best months to secure the cheaper deals as this is out of the peak seasons and holidays.
It was a very different Christmas than the usual and we will remember this Christmas at the Whitsundays forever!
How to get to Whitsundays
If you’re on a tight budget like us then you’ll want to book a boat tour online.
Most people book tours leaving from Airlie Beach to visit the Whitsunday Islands. However, you can also get a flight to Hamilton Island.
Airlie Beach is around a 7-hour drive away from Cairns. If you are travelling from Cairns to Whitsundays, it’s probably best to stop off at other places on the way such as Townsville. You could check out Magnetic Island too, another gem on the East Coast.
Whitsunday Island tours
There are a variety of options with regards to tours departing Airlie Beach to Whitsundays.
You can choose a day trip, a 2-day 1-night trip and many more. To make the most of the trip and make the most of your time, we would recommend booking a 2-day 1-night trip. This means you will be sleeping on the boat one night. A true backpacking Whitsundays experience.
Sleeping under the stars on a sailboat within the Whitsunday islands, how can it get much better than that?
Most tours include free meals and BYO alcohol too, which is an added bonus saving on some money. Don’t plan on taking any glass though such as wine bottles, glass is usually prohibited.
Money-saving tip: If you’re short on money as well as time just book a day trip to see the highlights of the Whitsundays
Some of the most reputable and best Whitsunday tour companies
- Freight Train
We ended up booking the Freight Train via bookme. The website has lots of cheap deals after comparing and shopping around. We would definitely recommend booking through them as we had no trouble whatsoever.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the Freight Train.
What we didn’t like about our Whitsunday Tour
We don’t like to highlight the bad things but we pride ourselves on being honest with our blogs and we would be doing you some injustice if we sugar coat it.
We had a great time sailing through the islands and they took us to some great snorkelling spots, however, the attitude and professionalism of the crew on the freight train tour could be a lot better.
In our experience, the captain showed a lack of respect to some of the group and some inappropriate jokes were being made. It is a ‘My way or the highway’ type of attitude which didn’t bother us too much, as long as we followed the rules.
The worst night sleep ever!
It didn’t help that we travelled during the summer months and the sleep at night was one of the worst we had, small, cramped and ridiculously hot. That isn’t so much Freight Train’s fault as it’s the unavoidable hot temperature combined with sleeping in a small space.
We wouldn’t book with them again and would go elsewhere, but it was the cheapest option at the time for a 2-days and 1-night Whitsunday tour. If you are thick-skinned and are travelling during the dry season, then this still may be the tour for you.
TOP TIP: Book your tour in advanced as soon as you can. The better tours and companies fill up fast.
If you are not doing a road trip and want to get there straight from the likes of Sydney or any other major city, a domestic flight to Hamilton Island within the Whitsundays is possible.
We always use Skyscanner for our flights as we regularly find the cheapest deals on their site.
Keeping safe on your trip
There are certain fears around sailing the Whitsundays and we shared some of them too. Scared of Sharks? We are too. But these little guys below are “Harmless” lemon reed sharks.
One of the fears is jumping in and out of a sailboat with marine life, which can be a scary thought. All those sharks in the water ready to eat you. Well, not quite. Yes, there are sharks in there that can harm you but the likelihood of it happening is very slim.
A bigger concern would be stingers in stinger season. This is why you must check that the tour company provides full-body stinger suits. We would advise wearing these even out of the stinger season to be safe. Thankfully, most tour companies make wearing a stinger suit mandatory whenever you want to swim.
Another one of the things people fear is storms. The likely hood is that there won’t be a storm, considering the time/season you are doing the tour. Even if there is, the boats are built for things like this and you can always go underneath in the cabin and cover your ears with pillows.
If anything does happen and you require medical attention, the staff should all be first aid trained. It’s also comforting knowing there are other tour companies around in case anything serious happens and you need to get seen quickly.
With all this and not getting too drunk on board, you should be good. Trust in the company, they will be very experienced. If you do have any other concerns then just ask the staff.
Where to stay in Whitsundays
Having accommodation within the Whitsundays will be pricey and there are no hostels. In that aspect it’s not backpacker friendly unless you wish to splash out for a special occasion.
Hamilton Island has most of the options for accommodation within the Whitsunday Islands. Some great options are:
- Whitsunday Apartments: Overlooking the Coral Sea, these apartments offer an outdoor swimming pool, free Wi-Fi, air conditioning and even a fully equipped kitchen. Check the latest prices here.
- Reef View Hotel: As the name suggests, you get a beautiful view. It also includes free shuttle transfer from the Hamilton Island airport. Having its own restaurant with à la carte dinner menu doesn’t hurt either. Check the latest prices here.
- Palm Bungalows: Only a 2 min walk from Cats eye beach, these private bungalows are perfect for a chilled out time. Check the latest prices here.
Alternatively, you can stay at Airlie beach like we did as most of the tours depart from.
- Magnums Airlie Beach: Perfect for a solo backpacker or couples. The rooms have air conditioning and are clean and tidy with sharing bathroom facilities. They have a social area with a BBQ and free Wi-Fi as. Laundry facilities are also available for a couple of dollars. Check the latest prices.
Money-saving tip: Book your accommodation at Airlie Beach between overnight tours so you don’t pay for an empty room
Backpacker Hot Spot
The main attraction of Magnums Airlie Beach is probably the bar and restaurant. It is a backpacker hot spot. With a huge open plan, alcohol and food options, it attracts backpackers like bears to honey.
At night it is filled with backpackers and locals jugging down pints and sharing travel stories. It is the perfect place to meet other fellow travellers.
The rooms are at the back of the property and you can barely hear any noise which is good for when you want a sleep.
What we appreciated most is that is right next door to Woolworths so we could buy food within walking distance. You can then use the free cooking facilities and save money by preparing your own meals.
An added bonus is that there is free parking right next door to Woolworths. This makes it stress-free coming back from your adventures at night knowing you have a place to park. There’s nothing worse than spending a portion of your life doing circles looking for parking.
We would definitely stay here again.
Things to do in Whitsundays
Below we’ve listed about 5 Things to do in the Whitsundays!
Now, most sailing tour companies will offer a certain itinerary which involves some of the listed things to do below.
If you struggle between a few companies then a good deciding factor is the sightseeing options they offer on the tour.
We will give you some of the activities and places you can’t miss out on so make sure some, if not all, are included in the tour. If you have more time and money you could even squeeze in a few more of our ideas.
1. Snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef in Whitsundays
The Whitsunday Islands sit within the heart of the Great Barrier Reef.
This makes the Whitsundays perfect for snorkelling. The snorkelling spots will spoil you with beautifully coloured fish and coral reef.
We snorkelled a few times on the East Coast of Australia and the Whitsundays were probably one of the best spots.
We saw some giant gorgeous looking fish, swimming in-between our bodies as they seek out any food. There were some funny looking fish too with eyes popping out of their head and bigger rubber lips.
It was so nice just being one with reef life and seeing them in their natural habitat.
For anyone worrying about sharks, yes you could see some, but if anything you will see harmless reef sharks. We felt pretty safe snorkelling around and other people are close by. If there was a dangerous shark the odds are you won’t be the one to get bit!
2. Scuba diving Whitsundays
Sailing Whitsundays have a breakdown of offers regarding scuba diving in the Whitsundays.
We can’t imagine a better destination to dive the depths of the sea. It’s definitely worth splashing the cash on this magical place. It could be the only time you will do it right? So make the most of it and get down under!
3. Visit Hamilton Island
Hamilton Island is one of the most popular islands to visit within Whitsundays.
It is a car-free Island offering great wildlife sightseeing, such as koalas, kangaroos and wallabies. It is surrounded by lush greenery and it is one of the few places offering accommodation.
If you are backpacking Whitsundays and staying on a sailboat it’s a good opportunity to visit it, otherwise you probably wouldn’t.
You can even get a domestic flight to Hamilton Island from the likes of Sydney and Melbourne.
4. Paradise on Whitehaven Beach
We challenge you to find a better beach. Seriously.
Whitehaven Beach is one of those destinations you see on a postcard or a billboard and think it can’t be real. Well, it is very real my friends.
Covered in 98.7% pure silica, the sand is just a big cushion for your toes to sink into. Due to the 98.7% silica, the sand doesn’t get hot enough to burn your feet so no matter how hot the sun is blazing you can walk around carefree on the sand.
The water isn’t too bad either. It is pristine and clear. You can even spot stingrays and reef sharks.
We got the drone out for a better view (and because we were kind of scared of the sharks) and it was amazing to see these fish roaming the ocean.
Whitehaven Beach changes its look by the tide. Certain parts of the beach get covered up and from above it looks like tasty vanilla ice cream swirls.
Most tour companies will visit Whitehaven Beach and if they don’t there is something seriously wrong.
5. Hill Inlet Lookout
Don’t worry if you don’t have a drone, visiting the Hill Inlet Lookout is equally as good.
It will take around 15 min to reach the top from the beach. It’s quite a steep climb but nothing too strenuous, unless you’ve been stuffing your face with burgers and deep fried chicken for weeks. It might be a little hard.
You will have to do this climb to get to the more popular and better part of Whitehaven Beach. It’s worth it to take the extra steps to the lookout.
The reward will be very satisfying with the breath-taking view. You will see what we mean by the vanilla swirls as the sea partly covers the sand, creating the effect.
From the lookout, you can see other nearby Islands and truly admire how lucky you are to be experiencing such a beautiful part of the world. Soak it all up.
Backpacking Whitsundays TOP TIPS
- Bring your phone to Whitehaven Beach; don’t leave it on the boat. You will want to take a lot of videos and photos
- Make sure you bring an external battery charger, charging ports might not be available on the boat
- Pack your own snacks for in-between meals
- Bring a water bottle (Most boats have drinking water)
- Make sure you pack a towel to dry yourself off with but also something to lay down on the boat with, tanning on the deck
- Bring a good amount of sun cream, sunglasses and a hat
- Don’t bring any alcohol in glass; we put our rum which was normally in a glass into a plastic bottle
- Pay the extra money if you can for the comfort and quality of a tour/boat. It is a once in a lifetime experience and you won’t be disappointed.
Whitsunday Island tour FAQ
The Whitsundays are in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and World Heritage Area
For the most part, yes. You have to be aware of stingers in stinger season but you are in the wild within the sea. There is the smallest of chances of encountering sharks.
The Whitsundays are off the central coast of Queensland, Australia. There are best accessed from Airlie Beach or by domestic flights.
Yes, swimming in The Whitsundays will be one of the best experiences you will ever have.