How to do Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef on a family budget

How to do Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef on a family budget

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You might’ve heard the rumours, and it’s true – experiencing all Queensland has to offer can quickly drain the holiday budget if you’re not careful. As Americans, we’d wanted to visit this part of Australia as a family for years (I’d been before, on my own), but we knew we’d have to get creative when it came to affording the adventure with kids in tow.

To my delight, it was much easier than I imagined. Here are the top 4 ways we enjoyed Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef affordably:

1. Stay at campgrounds

Big4 Coconut Holiday Park Cairns

We stayed at both the Coconut Holiday Park in Cairns and the Glengarry Holiday Park in Port Douglas, and had a fantastic time for much less than a hotel. In fact, these spots included water parks, full kitchens and laundry facilities (and the Cairns one included miniature golf!), so our young kids were happy to stay for hours, simply playing at our home base while we relaxed.

(Honestly, I’d call what we did glamping.)

2. Make your own meals

As foreign tourists, we were astounded at the price difference between restaurant menus and groceries. We were happy to make our own meals (the kitchens at our campsites made this possible), and I guarantee this simple act is what made visiting Queensland possible. We saved an enormous amount on our food budget by sticking to simple, homemade meals.

If doing this meant our kids holding koalas and feeding kangaroos, it was an easy sacrifice.

3. Live like a local

Captain Cook Highway from Cairns to Port Douglas

In between the (incredible) classic Queensland excursions, our down time was spent driving around and soaking in the scenery – the Captain Cook Highway is one of a kind – perusing local bookshops, sampling ice-cream, and revelling in the low-key way of life.

We weren’t after the adrenaline-filled experience, so staying content with the simple things made our time both affordable and memorable. We’re big believers in slow travel and diving in deep with a local culture.

4. Enjoy the big things

Quicksilver Cruises Great Barrier Reef

By saving our funds with housing and food, we could snorkel the Great Barrier Reef (even our four year old loved this!), immerse ourselves in the oldest rainforest in the world, and explore local Aboriginal culture.

Quicksilver Cruises is incredibly family-friendly and had kids’ snorkeling gear like fins, masks, life jackets, and wetsuits – even pool noodles – to make floating while snorkelling a breeze. With lifeguards on hand at all times, our kids could explore the reef with us (without us being overly-concerned about their whereabouts).

The dreamtime walk at Mossman Gorge was a perfect field trip: our kids learned the basics of Aboriginal culture and folklore from our entertaining guide, Tom (our kids still talk about his funny stories and the paint he made from rocks). Swimming in the crystal clear gorge after a sticky hike through the forest was one of my highlights.


And our day at Rainforestation, starting from the Kuranda Rail and ending with Skyrail was unforgettable. Ask my daughter, and she’ll tell you one of her highlights was holding a koala and feeding a kangaroo (not to mention seeing the best of Aussie animals like dingoes, crocodiles and a cassowary). Our boys loved the Army Duck jaunt through the rainforest river, learning which plants “want to kill you”. And the grownups among us were starstruck with the view from the Skyrail cablecar – not a bad way to see the oldest rainforest in the world.

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What are your best budget tips for travel in Queensland?

  • AdventureMumma

    Some great Tips here. Cairns & the number of activities on offer here are by no means cheap BUT at the same time locals like me can still afford to do lots of stuff that doesn’t break the bank. Most of it is just through getting outside & making the most of our natural surrounds. Some of it though, like the reef trips, are worth saving up for – particularly if it’s a first time visit the this part of Queensland. Nice wrap-up.
    Kate @AdventureMumma

  • Jedda Cooper

    Great activities, but agreee with Adventure Mumma.. many of the options chosen are far from cheap?! Agreed The Rainforest nature park is excellent value and my 4 year old loved the wildlife park they have but unfortunately we had no time to try Mossman Gorge although we got a taste of the local aboriginal culture at Kuranda also, so something for next time :-) My young family visited Cairns last Septemebr school holidays and had a great time on Compass Cruises for half the price of the reef option mentioned here and we were in very good hands all day. Nice article but not all the options here are the best choices for “budget” travellers.