How to Plan Your East Coast Australia Itinerary

Planning the perfect East Coast Australia Itinerary is worth a little bit 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 landscapes, 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.

When 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 itinerary, you’ll need to take this considerable variation into account.

Moreton Island in Queensland
Moreton Island in Queensland

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 Itinerary

When you’re planning your East Coast Australia itinerary, you’ll have to choose whether to start in Cairns in the north or Melbourne in the south or if time is limited then Sydney or Brisbane. There isn’t a lot of difference between these choices. All 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 Should You Allow to Travel 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 more than 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

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How to Get Around

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 for your trip. There are lots of choices of camper vans, from budget Hippie Vans to luxury offerings from Britz. We have most recently rented from Let’s Go Motorhomes and head off next week so stay tuned. 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.

If you are not a local we suggest you read our guide on Driving in Australia

The Best Places to Stop on your East Coast Australia Itinerary

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 landscape, you’ll have the opportunity to see everything during your road trip in Australia.

Here are the most popular places to visit:

Cairns

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.

Cairns waterfront

While you’re in Cairns, make sure you see:

The Whitsundays

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.

Great Keppel Island Whitsundays Queensland
Whitsunday Islands

They offer unparalleled access to the Great Barrier Reef as well as beautiful, pristine beach experiences.

Fraser Island

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.

Driving on Fraser Island Queensland

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.

Brisbane

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.

Brisbane skyline at sunset, Australia
Like Melbourne, Brisbane is a river city

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
  • Top restaurants
  • 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.

Byron Bay

Just over the border to New South Wales is Byron Bay, a small town that has become a mecca for alternative living, healing and wellness. 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.

Byron Bay lighthouse, Australia, at sunrise. Pacific Ocean from most easterly point of Australia.
Byron Bay lighthouse, Australia, at sunrise. Pacific Ocean from most easterly point of Australia.

While you’re in Byron Bay, go surfing, swimming, skydiving, or just hang out and enjoy the vibes.

Dorrigo

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.

Dangar Falls Dorrigo National Park East Coast Australia
Dangar Falls is a worthwhile detour

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

Sydney

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.

3 days in Sydney will work if you are pressed for time

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.

Jervis Bay

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.

Greenfields Beach NSW
Pristine white sands of Greenfield Beach, Vincentia on the South Coast. Credti: Destination NSW

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.

Melbourne

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.

Deborah Halpern sculpture named Angel on the Yarra River Melbourne
“Angel” Deborah Halpern along Melbourne’s Yarra River

Whether you’re starting or ending your East Coast Australia itinerary in Melbourne, it’s a great place to spend a couple of days.

While you are in Melbourne try to do at least a couple of these walks

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

The Takeaway

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.

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