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How to do the Great Barrier Reef on any budget

So, you’re thinking about visiting the Great Barrier Reef – and who can blame you? It’s one of the seven wonders of the natural world and the largest living organism on the planet. But with over 900 islands and 2,300 km of reef to explore, you might be wondering where to start (not to mention what it’s going to cost).

The good news is that it’s possible to experience the once-in-a-lifetime experiences and bucket-list activities of the Great Barrier Reef on any budget. So whether you need to keep costs to a minimum, or you’ve got cash to splash, it’s time to stop imagining and start planning your next Great Barrier Reef trip.

Here are a few ideas to get your started.

If you’re budget-conscious

Explore tropical Magnetic Island

Snorkelling around Magnetic Island

Affectionately known to the locals as Maggie, Magnetic island is just a 20 minute ferry ride from the coastal city of Townsville. With plenty of affordable accommodation options, it’s well worth making a weekend (or week!) of it, but it’s equally popular with day-trippers too.

You don’t have to go diving to experience the underwater world of the reef. Don a mask and snorkel and take a self-guided snorkel trail around Maggie’s tranquil bays to discover historic relics and bommies teeming with fish. You’d never know this was the Great Barrier Reef on a budget.

Prefer to stay on dry land? See the island through the eyes of a local with Magnetic Island’s Best Bus Tour. You’ll learn all about it’s WWII history, get schooled on the native plant and animal life, and discover a few secret spots along the way.

Then, head to Horseshoe Bay at sunset for a free show courtesy of the local rock wallabies, who visit the beach each night without fail.

See the reef without getting wet

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

Photo by @laurenepbath

Once you’re back on the mainland, head to Townsville’s Reef HQ Aquarium for a crash course on the Great Barrier Reef and its colourful residents.

For the price of admission you’ll get to witness the world’s largest living coral reef exhibition and can even pay a visit to the aquarium’s turtle hospital. Expect to pay around $70 for a family of four and kids under five go free.

If you’ve got a little more to spend

Experience island life on Daydream

Daydream Island Living Reef

One of the 74 idyllic islands that form The Whitsundays archipelago, Daydream Island is just a short boat ride from either Airlie Beach on the mainland or nearby Hamilton Island.

As well as offering an endless list of watersports, games, classes and daily activities for resort guests (all are either free or reasonably priced) the folk at Daydream are big on conservation and fostering love and respect for the reef. Visit the island’s famous Living Reef Lagoon and feed a baby stingray, discover over 100 unique species of marine fish or take an underwater observatory tour with a resident marine biologist.

And the best bit? Lagoon entry is free for guests and day-trippers.

Cruise your way around the reef

Agincourt Reef snorkelling

Spend a day on the open water.  Explore Michaelmas Cay and Paradise Reef from the deck of Passions of Paradise: a 25-metre sailing catamaran sailing out of Cairns. Learn about the wonders of the reef from your expert eco-guide before taking the plunge and seeing it firsthand. For a more remote experience, sail out of Port Douglas with Quicksilver Cruises to visit Agincourt Reef on the reef’s outermost edge.

Explore reef, rainforest and rivers in a single day with Frankland Islands Reef Cruises.  Board a gentle cruise along the Musgrave River before making the open-water crossing to the Frankland Islands, surrounded by vibrant fringing reefs where turtles feed and play.

Prices vary between tours but budget $200-300 per adult for a full day out on the water – more if you want to combine your trip with a scuba dive.

Spend the day on an eco-island

Lady Musgrave Experience | Best family Great Barrier Reef Islands

When it comes to eco-friendly reef experiences, the Southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef is where it’s at. For a few hundred bucks per adult, you can take a day trip from 1770 to visit Lady Musgrave Island and paddle in the waters of her famous lagoon. True to its eco-credentials, there’s not a resort or hotel in sight. Just a handful of intrepid explorers are permitted to camp on her shores (no more than 40 at a time).

Prefer to sleep with a solid roof over your head? Then check out her equally beautiful sister island, Lady Elliot. Located in the heart of the Marine National Park’s highly protected Green Zone, Lady Elliot Eco Resort is an affordable mix of eco-cabins, units and glamping tents just a few metres’ walk from the beach. Day-trips are also available if that’s more your jam.

If you’ve got money to spend

Escape to Orpheus

Orpheus island

Photo by @gypsy_chic13

There are plenty of options to explore the Great Barrier Reef on a budget, but if it’s privacy and luxury you seek, then say hello to Orpheus Island Lodge. An all-inclusive tropical island hideaway where you can step from the beach straight on to the reef, Orpheus has some serious eco-credentials to its name.

Take a personalised snorkelling or diving tour, explore the island’s protected giant clam garden with a qualified eco-educational guide, or visit their marine research station and live reef touch tanks.

Spend the night on the reef

The Great Barrier Reef is filled with unique and memorable experiences – but it doesn’t get more bucket-list worthy than Reefsleep.

Swim, snorkel and dive the day away, then spend the night out on the reef with just the stars for company. Your accommodation? Heart Pontoon at Hardy Reef: a permanently moored pontoon 39 nautical miles from shore. Lay out your swag, rest your head and let the waves gently rock you to sleep. Check with Cruise Whitsundays for up-to-date pricing.