Backpacking Australia: The Ultimate Guide To The Australian Backpacker Trail

If you’re planning on backpacking in Australia, there are many ways to do it, but one of the most common is to travel up and down the East Coast, staying in backpacker hostels along the way. Throughout this post, I’m going to discuss each location along the way, as well as where to stay and what to do.

The Trail

The most common Australian backpacker trail.

The most common route that backpackers take in Australia is the one depicted above, starting in Cairns and eventually making their way down to Sydney, with many stops along the way.

Now, let’s go into each stop in a bit more detail.

Cairns

Cairns is a popular backpacking location in Australia.
photo source

Where To Stay

Gilligan’s Backpackers – Gilligan’s is probably the most well known hostel in Cairns, mainly because of its great location and incredible atmosphere. They have a range of different room options, with anything from an 8 bed mixed dorm + ensuite which costs about $27.00 AUD a night, all the way up to deluxe private rooms with their own ensuites.

Travellers Oasis – Travellers Oasis is different type of hostel than Gilligan’s in that they only have a maximum capacity of 50 guests, and they also don’t have any bunk beds, which is great. They are very highly rated, and a single bed in a 6 bed mixed dorm costs about $28.00 AUD a night.

Dreamtime Travellers Rest – Dreamtime is a very relaxed hostel, and although the location isn’t as central as most would like, it has a really great atmosphere and is owned by travellers, so they know what you’re looking for.

What To Do

There are lots of great outdoor activities available in Cairns, including snorkeling and diving cruises to the Great Barrier Reef, white water rafting, and tours of the Daintree Rainforest. There are also plenty of other similar outdoor activities including bungy jumping, skydiving, quad biking and so on.

Cairns is a pretty commons starting point for backpackers, and because of that, the nightlife there is a lot of fun. Even if you’re not staying there, Gilligan’s is a popular bar/club among backpackers, and both The Jack and The Woolshed are, too.

Getting Around

The main area of Cairns is fairly small, and as such, you can get around on foot just fine. If you are planning on heading out to the suburbs, though, there are frequent buses running generally until 10 PM or 11 PM. Alternatively, you can, of course, hire a car.


Townsville

Townsville, another regular backpacking stop in Australia.
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Where To Stay

Rambutan – Rambutan has 58 rooms, a rooftop pool, an outdoor bar and restaurant, and is a great place to relax and have a few drinks with other travellers. A room in the standard 8 bed mixed dorm will cost you $28.00 AUD a night.

Civic Guesthouse – Located in the CBD of Townsville, Civic a great place to base yourself before experiencing Magnetic Island or the Great Barrier Reef. Rooms run at $26.00 AUD a night in the 6 bed mixed dorm, and there are also private options available.

What To Do

The main drawcard to Townsville, at least in my opinion, is its close proximity to Magnetic Island, which is only 8 kilometres (~4.9 miles) away.

Magnetic Island, Queensland.
photo source

At both Townsville and Magnetic Island, you have plenty of options not dissimilar to Cairns, including Great Barrier Reef dives and snorkel cruises, skydiving, and kayaking. Additionally, if you’re interested in seeing some of Australia’s wildlife, you can stop by the Billabong Sanctuary, home to crocodiles, koalas, wombats, kangaroos, snakes, and also the most dangerous (And also bordering on evil) bird in the world, the cassowary.

If history is more your thing, you can visit the Royal Australian Airforce Museum, which provides a look into Australian aviation history, dating back as far as World War II.

Getting Around

The Townsville Sunbus operates 7 days a week, and has 7 different lines all around Townsville.

In terms of getting from Townsville to Magnetic Island, you can get a round trip ticket for $32.00 AUD.


Airlie Beach

Popular backpacking town, Airlie Beach.
photo source

Where To Stay

Nomads Airlie Beach – Nomads is located in the heart of Airlie Beach and is definitely the best located hostel in the area. Every room has its own ensuite, and a bed in the 8 person dorms goes for $30.00 AUD a night.

Backpackers By The Bay – Although not as well located as Nomads, Backpackers By The Bay has lots going for it, including a free courtesy shuttle bus, a saltwater pool, and a fully equipped kitchen. Rooms here cost $27.00 AUD a night for the 8 person mixed dorm.

What To Do

Airlie Beach is a small town with a population of just under 8000 people. It’s a popular destination among backpackers, which of course means that the nightlife here is good. Some of the bars you should check out include Magnums, Beaches, and Mama Africa.

Even though you can have a lot of fun in Airlie Beach, the main reason to visit is because it’s the closest port in which you can get access to the Whitsunday islands, home of the best beach in Australia.

Whitsunday Island, home of the best beach in Australia.

You can either enjoy the beaches, go scuba diving, go on a jet ski tour, or many other activities. Two pieces of advice, though: During the warmer months, usually from between October and May, many parts along the coastline in this part of the country are home to box jellyfish, which can cause quite serious problems if you get stung. Make sure you swim in the protected areas during these months.

Secondly, although it’s fairly easily avoidable with some basic common sense, be aware of areas that may be home to crocodiles. Don’t swim in rivers and pay attention to signage in the area. If you’re unsure, ask a local.

Getting Around

You’ll be fine getting around Airlie Beach on foot, with the exception of getting to the Whitsunday islands which you can get to by ferry. There are a number of different options depending on where specifically you’d like to go, so see here for a list of prices.


Hervey Bay

Hervey Bay, Australia.
photo source

Where To Stay

Flashpackers Hervey Bay – Although it’s a little bit away from the beach, it has great facilities and is a fun place to relax before experiencing Fraser Island.  The 8 bed mixed dorm costs $28.00 AUD per person, each night.

Aussie Woolshed – The Woolshed is a family run hostel which is spread out across 4 buildings, and has won a variety of awards over the years. Like Flashpackers, this is a great place to relax before seeing Fraser Island, with the cheapest rooms costing $24.00 AUD a night.

What To Do

Hervey Bay is home to roughly 80,000 people and is a popular destination for those interested in whale watching, with many humpback whales on sight typically between August and October. As is the case for most destinations along the coast, there is a lot of great snorkeling and scuba diving options here, as well as things like skydiving.

Additionally, just a short ferry ride away from Hervey Bay is another great spot to stop at, Fraser Island.

Fraser Island, Queensland.

Fraser Island was listed as a World Heritage Site almost 25 years ago, and is a very popular destination. There are lots of things for you to do here in addition to the normal beach going, including seeing the Maheno shipwreck, The Pinnacles, Lake Wabby, or even go on a multi day tour of the region.

Getting Around

There are a number of car rental facilities available in the region, including some of the major companies in the country like Avis, Hertz, and Budget. Additionally, taxis are available via Australia Wide Taxi who can be reached on the phone number 131-008.

Lastly, there is also a well laid out waterfront cycleway in Hervey Bay that spans almost 20 kilometres (~12.4 miles), so you can explore the area by bike, if you’d like, with plenty of options to stop off along the way for a drink or something to eat.


Noosa

A beach in Noosa, a very popular Australian backpacking location.

Where To Stay

Noosa Flashpackers – The premier backpacker hostel in Noosa, free breakfast is provided and unlike most hostels around Australia, WiFi is also completely free. Rooms start at $40.00 AUD a night for a 4 bed mixed dorm, or $42.00 AUD a night for a 6 person female dorm with an ensuite.

Dolphins Beach House – Close to the Noosa National Park, Dolphins Beach House is another family-run hostel and is a nice place to unwind for a few days, and like Flashpackers, they also offer free WiFi. A room in the 5 person mixed dorm costs $29.00 AUD a night.

What To Do

One of the most popular areas of the Sunshine Coast, Noosa is a very popular destination among not only international tourists, but also Australians. There is a huge amount of great options for things like restaurants, bars, shopping, cafes, and of course, beautiful beaches.

The main beach is Noosa Heads which while great, can often get very crowded. If you want to escape the crowds, consider heading to the Noosa National Park, which has 4000 hectares worth of beaches and nature on offer.

If you’re after something a little bit more laid back, consider going on a river cruise along the Noosa Everglades. You can also go on a kayak/canoe tour along the Everglades.

Getting Around

There are both bus and train options around Noosa along the Sunshine Coast Region Network. You can use the TransLink website to plan out your trip. Also, there is only 1 taxi company that operates out of Noosa, and that is Suncoast Cabs, who can be reached on the phone number 131-008. You can also book online at their website, or via their app for your phone.


Brisbane

Brisbane, the capital city of Queensland.

Where To Stay

Bunk Brisbane – Brisbane’s most well known hostel, Bunk has won a variety of awards over the years and has many facilities on offer including free WiFi in the common areas, a large swimming pool and hot tub area, as well as a bar and nightclub. Rooms start at $25.00 AUD a night for a bed in the huge 20 person mixed dorm.

Brisbane City YHA – If you’re looking for a more laid-back option, consider Brisbane City YHA. You’ll find everything you need here, and is a good base to explore Brisbane. The cheapest rooms are the 6 person mixed dorms, where a bed will cost you $36.00 AUD a night.

What To Do

Brisbane is a pretty big city and is home to roughly 2 million people. As such, there are a huge number of things you can do. There are things like the Springbrook National Park, day trips to Stradbroke Island, Dolphin Cruises in Moreton Bay, or an afternoon at the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary.

In terms of nightlife, there are many options around. Some of the best backpacker oriented bars include The Victory, Down Under Bar, and Birdees.

Getting Around

Your options for getting around Brisbane via public transport are threefold, trains, buses, and ferries, all of which operate under TransLink. It can be quite expensive with a one way ticket costing as much as $4 AUD. In addition, these paper tickets, while currently available, are being phased out and replaced by the “go card,” similar to Sydney’s Opal card.

It’s much simpler to use a “go card” as you simply “touch on” and off on your journey. You will be able to obtain one of these cards at convenience stores, some newsagents, and also at train stations. An initial deposit of $10 AUD is made when you first purchase your card. You can read more about the “go card” system on the TransLink website.


Gold Coast

Gold Coast, Queensland.

Where To Stay

Surfers Paradise Backpackers Resort – Free WiFi, free laundry, lots of sport facilities (Tennis, basketball, table tennis, pool to name a few), a swimming pool, a sauna, a licensed bar and nightclub passes handed out each night. You’ll find everything you need here and the cheapest bed only costs $27.00 AUD a night.

Surf n Sun – Also boasting free WiFi, Surf n Sun is another popular hostel in this part of the country that is just by the beach and has a great atmosphere with pub crawls twice a week, and different party options every night. A bed in the 8 person dorm with an ensuite is $26.00 AUD a night.

What To Do

As you may have guessed, the Gold Coast is home to many beaches. In fact, there are more than 30. While you’re enjoying the beach, the first thing to point out is to make sure that you always swim between the flags. Almost all of the beaches you come across here will be patrolled by either volunteer lifeguards or professionals.

Some other things that you might be interested in include seeing some wildlife like snakes, kangaroos, crocs, and koalas at the Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, a dinner show that gives you a taste into the Australian Outback, or if theme parks are your thing, get a Gold Coast theme park pass, which gets you entry into Movie World, Sea World, and Wet n Wild.

Gold Coast also has a pretty thriving nightlife for backpackers, with a number of different backpacker bars and pub crawls, including the Wicked Club Crawl.

Getting Around

There are a number of ways to get around Gold Coast via public transport, and the easiest of which is the “G:Link” Light Rail tram network which spans 13 kilometres (~8 miles) which will take you near most places that you’re interested in seeing, and they run every 5-15 minutes or so depending on the day and time. During the week the trams will only stop running between 12 AM and 5 AM, however, on Friday and Saturday nights they run continually every 30 minutes until 7 AM. Like Brisbane, your best option is to get a “go card” that you swipe both when you get on, and again when you get off.

In addition to the light rail, there are also bus services supplied by Surfside Buslines. These buses run all day every day, except less frequently at night. Between buses and the light rail, you will definitely be able to get everywhere you need to be, however, as a backup, you can also call a taxi on 131-008.


Byron Bay

Byron Bay, arguably the best backpacker town in Australia.

Where To Stay

Cape Byron YHA – Only 100 metres (~328 feet) from the beach, boasting great facilities and a fun laid-back atmosphere. Rooms start at $34 AUD a night, and there male, female, and mixed dorm options available.

Backpackers Holiday Village – Located in the heart of Byron Bay, this hostel is the perfect place to meet other travellers and has a range of useful facilities. The 4 bed mixed dorms go for $40.00 AUD per person, each night.

What To Do

Byron Bay is a very laid-back coastal town in New South Wales, and is personally my favourite part of Australia. There are roughly 30,000 people living in the region, and it’s quite a popular tourist destination (1.7 million visitors a year!) so you’ll meet plenty of people from around the world there.

In addition to laying about the beach, consider learning to surf, a visit to the Cape Byron Lighthouse, or even go kayaking with dolphins. In terms of nightlife, the Beach Hotel is a really nice pub, Cheeky Monkey’s is a very popular backpacker bar, and La La Land is a really fun nightclub.

Getting Around

There isn’t much in the way of public transport around Byron, however, you won’t need it. Just about everywhere you’ll spend your time will be accessible on foot.


Sydney

The most well known city in Australia, Sydney.

Where To Stay

Wake Up! – Wake Up! was the winner of the “5th Best Extra Large Hostel Worldwide” at the HostelWorld awards in 2016, and it’s easy to see why. Located right in the heart of the Sydney, it’s a very large, yet modern and clean hostel with a huge range of things on offer from free walking tours to pub crawls to pizza nights. The cheapest rooms are $38.00 AUD a night for a bed in a 10 person mixed dorm.

Bounce Sydney – Another hostel that has done extremely well over the years in terms of awards is Bounce. It’s also located in Central Sydney and has all of the things you expect a top tier hostel to have, but its best feature has to be the rooftop terrace that gives you incredible views of Sydney. A bed at bounce starts at $41.00 AUD a night.

What To Do

Sydney is a big city, and as such, there is an never ending list of things to do. Please see our Sydney post for a full look into what’s on offer.

Getting Around

As I mentioned earlier in this post, Sydney’s public transport system operates using the Opal system. As above, please see our Sydney post, where I’ve explained the Sydney public transport situation in detail.


Important Things To Know

  • Wear sunscreen

I mentioned this earlier in the post, but I thought I would again. Australia is often known as the “skin cancer capital of the world,” so make sure you Slip-Slop-Slap.

  • Sim cards

Data isn’t exactly cheap in Australia, and you can expect to pay $30 for a sim card with 5 GB of data that expires in 30 days. For a full breakdown of different options available, check out this site. In terms of the best coverage, I recommend Telstra.

  • Cost of living

Australia isn’t cheap, and in fact, it’s one of the most expensive countries in the world, so be prepared. Numbeo does a reasonable job of breaking down the price of things here.

  • Free tours

A great way to get a feel for a new city cheaply, and also a great way to meet other travellers is via a free walking tour. You will struggle to find them on some of the smaller stops along the backpacker trail (And you won’t need them there, anyway), but in terms of the big cities, I’m Free offers free walking tours in both Melbourne and Sydney, and there are also some in Brisbane.

  • Thongs vs flip flops

What are known as flip flops in the United States are called “thongs” in Australia, which is obviously a fair bit different to what thongs are in the US.

  • Respect the ocean

Although you should definitely relax and enjoy your time at Australia’s many great beaches, you should also be aware of the dangers. Many beaches are patrolled by lifeguards throughout the warmer months of October to April, while some of the bigger beaches are patrolled all year around. Make sure you swim between the flags. Tourists have been caught up in rips and needed to be rescued quite often, so much so that they even made a TV show about it.

  • Travel insurance

It’s likely that nothing will go wrong during your trip, but travelling without travel insurance is very risky as there are a number of potential expenses that can occur, so it’s a very good idea to make sure you’re insured.

  • Size of Australia

Many visitors to Australia, particularly those from Europe, don’t realize how big it is. In order to help you plan accordingly and give you a guide as to the size of the country, use this as a reference:

Sydney to Adelaide is roughly the same distance as London to Croatia or New York City to Jacksonville.

Sydney to Cairns is roughly the same distance as London to Athens or New York City to Austin.

Sydney to Perth is roughly the same distance as London to Iraq or New York City to Los Angeles.

  • When to travel

Australia’s climate is such that you can travel here all year around. The Winter is very mild in most parts of the country and the Summer can get very hot. See here for average temperatures in Celsius, and here for averages in Fahrenheit.

  • Vaccines

For an overwhelming majority of tourists to Australia, you won’t need any vaccines before coming here. It’s possible you could need the Japanese encephalitis vaccine if you’re visiting various remote areas of Australia, and also the Rabies vaccine if there’s a possibility you’re going to be around bats (Like if you go caving, for example). Like I said, it’s very likely you won’t need any, but speak to your doctor.


What To Bring

I’m going to break this down into 3 categories, Must Have, Recommended, and Optional.

Must Have

Backpack

The best advice you can get about choosing a backpack is to avoid choosing one that’s too big. Most people over pack, and find that they get annoyed pretty quickly lugging around a very heavy backpack all day filled with things they don’t need. Look for something in the 40-50 litre range. Specifically, the Osprey Porter 46L is very popular.

Osprey 46 backpack.

Shoes

I think it’s a good idea to take 2 pairs of shoes with you when backpacking. 1 pair for your general day to day walking around, hiking, and whatever else, and another pair for when you go out at night. Also, you’ll want to make sure you bring some flip flops (Thongs in Australia!) to wear in hostels when showering.

Documents

Obviously you will need your passport, and unless you’re from New Zealand, you will also need to obtain a visa. There are a number of different visa options, and you can get all of the information about them here.

Toiletries and first aid kit

It’s a good idea to pack both travel sized toiletries, and also a travel first aid kit.

Miscellaneous

There are a couple of other things that you should definitely bring with you on your travels. The first is a travel lock. You definitely don’t need to buy anything expensive, and most hotels will have secure lockers, however, some won’t so it’s good to have your own lock just in case.

The second miscellaneous item is a microfibre towel, as they are quick drying and much better to deal with than a normal towel while on the road. You can get them in different sizes, or even a combination of several sizes.

Recommended

Compression socks

Depending on how far away you’re coming from, compression socks can help a great amount to prevent deep vein thrombosis on a long flight. Also make sure to get up and stretch your legs as much as you can.

Headphones

Again, on a long flight, headphones are a big help. Specifically, noise cancelling ones.

Travel adapter

You can find the same plug that’s used in Australia in several countries such as New Zealand, China, Fiji and a few others, however, for the rest of the world, you’ll need a travel adapter in order to charge your phone, laptop if you bring one, and whatever else.

Optional

Chromebook

Although it can often be a good idea to travel without any form of a computer other than your phone, if you do decide you’d rather have something there so that you can keep in touch with people back home easily, upload photos and so on, consider leaving your main laptop at home and get a cheaper and smaller Chromebook. There are plenty of options available.

Kindle

If you like to read, you may very well already have one, but a Kindle can be helpful while travelling. They don’t take up much space, are very lightweight, and can help keep you entertained on long flights, train or bus rides.

Neck Pillow

I’m not really a big fan of neck pillows, but a lot of travellers swear by them, so I figured I should probably include them here.

Packing Cubes

Packing cubes, on the other hand, can be very, very useful and make the process of constantly packing up your bag and moving onto your next destination all that much easier.


That’s it! I hope you’ve found some value in this post and ultimately, Australia is an incredibly safe country with a very diverse culture, and lots of things to do for everyone. Enjoy your trip, and let me know your backpacking plans in the comments.

The Ultimate Guide To The Australian Backpacker Trail

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