How to do the Great Barrier Reef on any budget

Even if you’ve been living on the moon – from which you can see all 2,300 kilometres of the Great Barrier Reef by the way – you would know that it’s kind of a big deal; like, David Attenborough’s fave levels of big.

But seeing this big deal doesn’t have to mean big bucks (although there’s plenty for the high rollers, too) because the Great Barrier Reef is a master of budget disguise.

From family fun to luxe, under-the-star sleep outs, there are almost more ways to see the reef than fish living in it. Here are 12 ways to live the #reeflife on any budget.


Snorkel Magnetic Island

Snorkelling on Magnetic-Island

The snorkelling equivalent of Champagne on a beer budget, donning a mask and going bubble-side on Magnetic Island will feel way more expensive than the $7+ it will cost you to explore on your own. Bobbing in aquamarine waters and playing with a glittering rainbow of fish friends? Beyond priceless.

See the reef without getting wet

Keen on some reef action but not so down with the whole being in the ocean thing? Reef HQ Great Barrier Reef Aquarium in Townsville is all about helping dedicated landlubbers stay high and dry, while still experiencing the glory of the reef. The world’s largest living coral reef aquarium, it will set you back just $28 for an adult’s admission.

Daydream Island | How to do the Great Barrier Reef on any budget

Photo by @laurenepbath

If you’re the seafaring type, jump on a local ferry service and visit the Whitsundays’ Daydream Island, home to the Living Reef Lagoon. The living reef is designed to house and conserve (under licence) live coral and marine specimens from the Great Barrier Reef, so it’s just like the real thing minus being wet. Viewing the Living Reef Lagoon is free and ferry transfers cost from around $27 per child, $40 per adult, one-way ex-Airlie Beach.

Make it a quickie

Faster than Usain Bolt, with just as much charisma, a Reef Sprinter snorkelling adventure gets you to the Great Barrier Reef lickity split (aka 15 minutes) thanks to a 500-horse power speed boat that reaches speeds of more than 40 knots. The perfect option if you’re time poor, the two-and-a-half hour tour of the vast coral gardens and abundant fish life of Low Isles departs from the Port Douglas Slipway jetty three times a day. Cost is from $100 per child and $120 per adult.

A day on the cay

Fitzroy Island Aerial

Take a day trip deserted island style at Fitzroy Island. Hop on a 45-minute return ferry ride from Cairns to swim with giant sea turtles and explore the densely populated section of reef fringing the island. A glass-bottom boat tour and snorkel gear hire will set you back $101. Make like Robinson Crusoe at the national park campsite for $32 a night (for four people), or treat yo’ self and stay in the island’s 4.5-star hotel.

Visit a lady

The Southern Great Barrier Reef’s ‘fun without the price tag’ game is strong but if you want a true coral cay experience, you’ve come to the right place: Lady Musgrave Island and her stunning lagoon. Hop aboard Lady Musgrave Cruises or if you’re jumping off point is Bundaberg, Lady Musgrave Experience will be your chariot for the day. The jam-packed itinerary includes lagoon snorkelling, a guided island walk and buffet lunch. Ranging in cost from $90 per child, $190 per adult with Lady Musgrave Cruises to $205 with Lady Musgrave Experience.

Sail the high seas

Snorkelling in Cairns

Even if you have absolutely no idea what the heck ‘cut the jib’ means or how to unfurl a sail, you can still get a taste of the pirate life with a day sail trip from Cairns. Passions of Paradise is a 25-metre custom-designed sailing catamaran that heads to Michaelmas Cay and Paradise Reef daily. Soak up some vitamin D, snorkel with the fish, scuba dive or check out the beauty of the reef on a glass bottom boat ride. Cost is $110 per child, $169 per adult.



Seaplane over Heart Reef

Feel like you need to up the ante on your trip to the Great Barrier Reef? Well, we’ll just leave this seaplane over Heart Reef trip right here and see what happens. If you need more to add to your wooing arsenal, upgrade to a bonus stop at Whitehaven Beach. Wink, wink. Total cost is $389 per person.

Have a deluxe reef-over with ReefSleep

While the plebes are rolling out their swags under the stars, you of the A-list style, will be snuggling down into your plush bed. That just so happens to be floating… above the Great Barrier Reef. Tricked out like the most pimpin’ of hotel rooms you’ll also have an exclusive night-time wilderness experience, and all the usual trappings of a reef overnighter. Check out Cruise Whitsundays’ for their ReefSleep trip. The double room costs $489 per person twin share. 

Encounters of the Great Barrier Reef kind

Go ‘rich kids of Instagram’ on your Great Barrier Reef holiday thanks to Reef Encounter’s rockstar-approved two-day liveaboard package. Because, why the hell not? Relax to the max on a sleek 35-metre catamaran (after arriving via helicopter, of course) while stuffing yourself with gourmet meals and doing whatever takes your fancy. And hey, $525 twin-share – including a night dive – is a small price to pay for such decadence, right?

Breakfast on the Reef

Breakfast on the reef | How to do the Great Barrier Reef on any budget

No soggy Weetbix in sight, this breakfast of champions includes a helicopter ride out over the Great Barrier Reef, bubbles, brunch and your own private cay for two whole hours. Great Barrier Reef Helicopters take off from Cairns daily and it will set you back from $1238 per couple.

Laze like a lizard on Lizard Island

Beach life never looked so busy; sure, you can be as lazy as you want but there’s 24 jaw-dropping beaches on Lizard Island and they’re not going to explore themselves. Rest your weary self in serious comfort at the island’s five-star digs, become well acquainted with gourmet fare at Osprey’s Restaurant, and go full premium economy by throwing in a spa treatment or two while you’re there. Rooms start at $1,699.

Hire your own island

No man is an island, but a man (or woman), and 35 of their closest friends, can have this island for $17,500 per night. No biggie. Splashing the cash for Double Island includes all facilities and activities – that’s means an indoor cinema, beachside gymnasium, catamarans, windsurfers, walking tracks and moonlight outdoor cinema. But, of course… The good folk that run the island will even throw in your meals so you don’t go hungry. Note: if it’s good enough for Keanu Reeves, it’s definitely going to meet your exacting standards.

Which end of the budget is more your style? Got any hot tips to add? Tell us in the comments below.

Psst! These holiday deals will help you save money on your Great Barrier Reef holiday!