PLAN your EPIC EAST COAST AUSTRALIA Road TRip Itinerary
Planning the perfect East Coast Australia road trip Itinerary is worth a little of research, knowing the towns you don’t want to miss and getting a feel for how long you need to cover the route is a great place to start. Consider this a primer to help you on your way to creating your own great trip!
There’s a lot more to the east coast of Australia than Sydney and the Great Barrier Reef. This is a vast area, filled with small towns, amazing beaches, and lots of opportunities for adventure sports and activities. If you’re trying to plan an East Coast Australia Itinerary, then you will have your pick of places to go and things to see. To make that process a little easier, here’s some advice for seeing the best this region has to offer.
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The best time to travel Australia’s East Coast
The east coast of Australia is extraordinarily diverse.
- The far north is tropical, which means it’s hot and humid pretty much year-round.
- The south end of the coast has the standard four seasons, and you will even need your winter woollies.
When you’re planning your East Coast Australia road trip, you’ll need to take this considerable variation into account.
How you choose to travel will probably determine when you visit.
- If you plan to camp and sleep outdoors, avoid winter (June-August) as it will be too cold to sleep outdoors in the south.
- If you like to swim or just want good weather, then don’t travel in the middle of summer. This is the wet season in the far north of Queensland, which means lots of rain. It’s also box jellyfish season, so swimming at the beaches can be dangerous – if not deadly.
- If you want to avoid these issues, try travelling in spring (September – November) or autumn (March-May).
Where to Begin Your East Coast Australia road trip
When planning your East Coast Australia itinerary, you’ll have to choose whether to start in Cairns in the north of Melbourne in the south or if time is limited then Sydney or Brisbane. There isn’t a lot of difference between these choices. All four cities have an international airport, offer lots of places to stay and things to do, as well as places to hire everything you’ll need for your trip. The deciding factors are weather and time.
However, if you’re planning an East Coast Australia itinerary for autumn, it might be better to start in Melbourne. That means you’ll be in warm, sunny Queensland by the time the cold sets in.
How Long does it take to drive the East Coast?
Most people don’t realise just how big Australia is. You can’t drive from Cairns to Melbourne, or the other way around, in a day or even in a few days. These cities are over 3,700 km apart. It would take you at least 40 hours to get from one city to the other without stopping, slowing for traffic, or encountering hold-ups. Obviously, your East Coast Australia itinerary will have to take these kinds of distances into account.
You could drive this distance in a week if you push it, but longer is better. Around four weeks is good if you want to see all the highlights along the way. But if you want to take your time and spend a few days in all the good spots, you should probably plan for 6-8 weeks.
East Coast Australia Travel Map – Suggested stops
How should you travel the East Coast of Australia?
This is probably the first choice you need to make when you’re planning your East Coast Australia itinerary. You can fly between cities and popular spots, but you will miss a lot along the way. Flights within Australia can be costly, so this is the more expensive option.
The best way to see everything is to drive. Here are your choices for a driving trip:
Hire a Car
This is the easiest way. You can hire a car in Cairns or Melbourne and drop it off at the end of the trip. This works if you’re travelling on your own or with a friend and don’t mind staying in hotels, hostels, and campsites along the way.
Hire a Campervan
If you’re travelling with a family or just want your own accommodation, you can hire a campervan or motorhome for your trip. There are lots of choices of camper vans, from budget Jucy to luxury offerings from Britz. We rented from Let’s Go Motorhomes and explored the NSW section of the coast in 2020. Whatever your travel style and budget, you can find a campervan to match.
Take a Bus
If you can’t drive, take the trusty Greyhound bus. Their routes are extensive, and you can get hop-on-hop-off passes that are fairly cost-effective. This is also one of the most comfortable ways to travel, as you can sleep while you’re on the move.
Join a tour
Sometimes if you are short of planning time or would rather someone else sorted out all the logistic a multi day tour makes sense. These can be loads of fun, particularly if you are travelling alone and while they are certainly more expensive than doing it yourself they offer you a quality carefree experience where you just have to enjoy yourself and let someone else do the daily worrying!
This 8 day tour covers the stretch from Cairns to Brisbane and can be a good choice if you don’t have a lot of time. You could do this tour and then do the next stretch in a rental campervan. The best of both worlds, really.
If you are not a local, we suggest you read our guide on Driving in Australia before you get behind the wheel.
The Best Places to Stop on your East Coast road Trip
And now the best part of your East Coast Australia itinerary – deciding where to go. Whether you like beaches, cities, weird little towns, international cities, or stunning landscapes, you’ll have the opportunity to see everything during your road trip in Australia.
Here are the most popular places to visit:
Cairns is the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef and all its wonders, so it’s a not-to-be-missed stop on your trip. Located in tropical Far North Queensland, it’s a small town that’s mostly known for its reef access, so don’t expect to do a lot in the town itself. You might like to base yourself a little further north, we have written a guide to the towns near Cairns so you can decide which is right for you.
While you’re in Cairns, make sure you see:
While you’re in the far north, you have to see the Whitsundays. Often called one of the most beautiful places on earth, the Whitsundays are a series of islands that can be accessed from Arlie Beach.
They offer unparalleled access to the Great Barrier Reef and beautiful, pristine beach experiences. Why not stop for a few days, book a one day Whitsunday’s sailing tour or find out how to charter a yacht and become an ocean explorer? For a really special experience, we recommend a night on Reefsleep.
If you enjoy the beach, then Fraser Island needs to be part of your East Coast Australia itinerary. It’s the largest sand island in the world and a World Heritage Listed site that offers untouched rainforest, animal experiences, and the chance to get lost in rugged natural surroundings.
Fraser Island is located further down the coast near Hervey Bay; if you want to see whales during your trip, then this is where to go.
If you’ve made it from Cairns to Brisbane, you probably need to stay in a big city and shake the sand from your shoes. Brisbane is the perfect place to do that.
Young and vibrant, with great weather nearly year-round, Brisbane offers lots of attractions such as:
- Shopping on Edwards Street
- Interesting local markets
- South Bank Beach
- Top restaurants
- Great hikes
- Numerous breweries and small bars
- Museums and Art Galleries
If you stop for a few days, you might like to check out our favourite day trips from Brisbane that will help you discover some of the nearby gems.
Just over the border of New South Wales Kingscliff and beauty of Kingscliff and the entire Tweed region is a surprise to most travellers. If you are not one for big cities you could skip Brisbane and head straight here.
- Discover the small communities in the Tweed Valley
- Visit Cabarita Beach – named Australia’s best beach back in 2020 and still one of our favourites
- Snorkel the rocky shore of Hastings Point
- Taste the famous Ink Gin at Husk Distillery and sample the amazing rum
Camp at Hosanna Farm – with camping spots, farm animals to meet and espresso coffee it’s a fantstic spot to call home for a couple of nights.
Byron Bay, a small town that has become a mecca for alternative living, healing and wellness, is a well established stop on any east coast road trip. Once a sleepy beach town, it’s now filled with yoga and healthy living centres. But this doesn’t detract from its beauty. Byron Bay’s beaches are simply stunning, and the natural surroundings are green, lush – just what you need to heal your soul.
While you’re in Byron Bay, take the famous Cape Byron Lighthouse walk, go surfing, swimming, skydiving, or just hang out and enjoy the vibes.
Located just south of Byron Bay and Coffs Harbour, Dorrigo is the gateway to the ancient rainforest and dramatic waterfalls of the World Heritage-listed Dorrigo National Park. If you have time for a detour explore the Waterfall Way.
The park is just north of the town and offers:
- Walking trails
- Exhibitions on some of the local flora and fauna
- Incredible lookouts
- Accommodation to suit every budget
- Delicious local produce
- Aboriginal cultural experiences
- Lots of charming small towns
We have written about of favourite National Parks in Australia if you want to explore more
Everyone’s heard of Sydney because of the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge. But this city has a lot more to offer – from a fun beach vibe to easy access to the Blue Mountains.
Whether you’re visiting for the concrete jungle or want to be out in nature, Sydney should be an essential stop on your trip. Our tips for a weekend in Sydney is a good read before you hit the town.
Three hours’ drive south of Sydney, Jervis Bay is said to have some of the whitest sand in the world. It’s one of Australia’s most popular seaside destinations because of its peaceful, aqua coloured waters and summery charm.
While you’re there, go scuba diving, camping, or take a whale and dolphin watching cruise and enjoy the outdoors before you hit Melbourne’s concrete walls.
And then we have Melbourne, one of the busiest and most international cities in Australia. This is where you’ll find some of the best restaurants in the country, our sporting capital, and some fantastic shopping.
Whether you’re starting or ending your East Coast Australia itinerary in Melbourne, it’s a great place to spend a couple of days. There are heaps of free things to do in Melbourne and you must explore the city’s street art, it’s world-class.
How to Travel in Australia on a Budget
You don’t plan a trip to Australia if you’re on a tight budget. The fact is that Australia is fairly expensive to travel and live in, and you won’t find any areas that offer huge discounts. But if you’re looking to save as much money as you can, here are some suggestions for your East Coast Australia itinerary:
- Travel in winter to take advantage of low season prices.
- Use DriveNow to make sure you’re getting the best prices for transport.
- Stay in local hostels or camp out whenever possible.
- Check out the bus passes if taking the Greyhound bus is part of your East Coast Australia itinerary.
- Check out relocation deals for cheap campervan rentals.
Choose an East Coast Tour
If you are travelling alone and want some company or prefer not to drive there are a number of tours that cover Australia’s east coast
- 3 Week East Coast Surf Road Trip: Melbourne to Brisbane – learn to surf every day!
- Boutique Brisbane to Cairns Australian east coast tour – 7 Day small group 4 star accommodation
- Stray Australia: Sydney to Cairns – Freestyle Pass – travel the coast over 2 weeks – valid for 12 months
- Stray Australia: Brisbane to Cairns – Freestyle Pass – allow a week to see this magical part of the coast
The best thing about an East Coast Australia trip is the freedom. You can choose where you go and when, take advantage of interesting side trips, and move on when you feel the need. This is the kind of trip that’s all about you, so get planning and enjoy the feeling of a holiday that’s literally an open road.
Got a question? Head over to our Australia Travel Tips Facebook Group and ask a local.