Planning a Sydney to Cairns road trip soon? You’ll see some incredible cities, towns and islands, along with surprise wildlife and stunning landscapes! Find out the best places to stop, what to do and how to enjoy your trip to the fullest!
Australia is an incredible place for a road trip. Whether you’ve bought a car, hired a camper van or are bus hopping along the east coast, you’ll need to have some sort of plan in place for where you want to go. This article is going to take you from Sydney to Cairns, stopping at a huge 22 different places!
You definitely don’t need to check out them all – you might not have the time, budget or interest to go everywhere but I want to give you all of the options so that you can organise the best road trip for you. If you do want to experience everything on my ultimate road trip itinerary then I would suggest giving yourself AT LEAST 8 weeks to fully enjoy everything.
If you have a Working Holiday visa, then that shouldn’t be a problem! You can easily find a job for 6 – 8 months, save up and spend the rest of your time cruising around Australia.
But, if you don’t have the luxury of time, then you could easily make the journey in 3 weeks, stopping at fewer places. I’ve highlighted the absolute unmissable stops for you if this is the case!
The distance between Cairns and Sydney is around 2400km, but in this post, the trip will be around 2700km because of the extra places I’ve added in!
This is a pretty hefty article so grab a glass of wine, or a cup of goon if you’re already in Oz, and start planning your road trip of a lifetime!
The Ultimate Sydney To Cairns Road Trip
Sydney is a great starting point for your road trip for a couple of reasons. Firstly, there is so much to see and do which means you’ll have a great time right from the beginning! It’s also a good place to meet people so if you are travelling solo then you could plan your trip with your new friends.
The city is also expensive – but I think that it’s better to start somewhere that will force you to really carefully think about your budget! You can then carry that mindset along the coast and gradually spend less and less as your funds disappear!
Spend at least 3 days here if you can. There are plenty of beautiful parks to relax in, beaches to explore and restaurants to eat your way through! It can even be the perfect place for a romantic date, even if you don’t want to spend much money!
Head up to the famous Bondi beach to hone in your surfing skills, discover more about Australia’s cultural heritage in the Art Gallery of NSW or simply take a break in one of the city’s many indie cafes and enjoy a famous Aussie breakfast – no, not ‘avo’ – Vegemite on toast!
Distance until next stop: 160km (around 2 hours 30)
Spend 1 or 2 days in this friendly city, exploring the local history dating back thousands of years. It’s a great place to visit if you’re into free and low-cost attractions with beautiful waterfront views. Take a dip in the fantastically named Bogey Hole – a purpose-built ocean pool that has been in operation since the early 1800s!
There are plenty of gorgeous walks and trails to follow too, ranging from an easy 20 minutes to over 3 hours, so there’s something for every level of fitness. You also might be lucky enough to spot a dolphin or two as they splash about.
Newcastle is also the perfect base if you want to explore the Hunter Valley region – drink wine, enjoy a hot air balloon ride or immerse yourself in an Aboriginal Culture tour.
Distance until next stop: 245km (around 2 hours 40)
This coastal town is a lovely little stop off on your drive through New South Wales. There’s plenty to do – but one main attraction makes it stand out as somewhere to actually spend some time. The Koala Hospital looks after injured and sick animals, so it’s not an unethical tourist attraction like a zoo.
You can take a self-guided tour around the hospital for no fee so that you can learn more about what the staff do. You can take a guided tour (run by volunteers) at certain times of the day or a group guided tour, which asks for a small donation.
It’s a great way to see koalas rather than cuddling one in a ‘conservation park’ – here, you can be sure that everyone has the animals best interests at heart!
There are also lots of fantastic beach walks, local markets and heritage galleries to enjoy along the way.
Distance until next stop: 150km (around 1 hour 40)
Australia is big. Australia also loves ‘big things’, in particular – fruit. You can be driving along a highway not seeing much for hours, and then suddenly you’ll go past a gigantic strawberry on the side of the road.
Coff’s Harbour is home to the Big Banana, which is now the entrance to the Big Banana Fun Park.
There’s a water park, giant slides, an ice rink, mini-golf, a toboggan and much more. It’s a fun way to spend a day and release your inner child. There’s also a cheese-making workshop and an incredible sweet shop!
If you plan to stay in Coff’s Harbour and you hate bananas, then there will be something else for you to do.
Take a bushwalk along one of the gorgeous beaches or in amongst the local national parks. Get in the water and kayak down the river, hire a 4WD and explore the remote nature reserves or take a Giingan Gumbaynggirr Cultural Experience to learn about the language, food and dances of the local indigenous people.
Distance until next stop: 250km (around 3 hours 20)
Surfing, hippies and festivals. Those are the 3 main reasons to visit Byron Bay, but I’m sure you’ll find loads more reasons to stay!
Take a walk up to the famous Cape Byron Lighthouse, where you’ll be rewarded with incredible views of the bay. It’s also Australia’s most easterly point so there’s something else to tick off your bucket list!
Learn how to surf in the iconic waters of the bay, or stick to a boat and see if you can spot some whales going about their daily business.
If you’re more interested in trees than the ocean, then the scenic hinterlands are waiting for you. Explore quirky towns, swim underneath rushing waterfalls and discover the cute wildlife that lives amongst the rainforests.
You can also go hang gliding, sky diving or hot air ballooning if you have the guts!
Distance until next stop: 90km (around 1 hour 10)
You’ve made it from New South Wales to Queensland! Don’t forget to adjust your clocks to adjust for Daylight Savings Time on your way up here!
A new state means new adventures, plus the weather is going to start to be noticeably different soon. Be prepared for heavy rain in the summer!
A great attraction in this city is the SkyPoint Observation Deck – it’s the only coastal deck in Australia! The views from the top are insane and you can enjoy lunch and a drink up here to soak in everything. Buy your skip-the-line tickets here.
One of the many things I love about Australia is the fact that you are never too far from outstanding natural beauty, even if you are staying in a city. You can easily take a trip like this to a National Park and explore rainforests and waterfalls, or visit the hinterlands to see what wildlife you can find!
Relax on the sandy beaches, or get your adrenaline pumping at one of the exciting theme parks in the area! Choose from Warner Bros. Movie World, Wet ‘n’ Wild, Dreamworld and more, or buy a multi-day pass and enjoy multiple days of fun!
Distance until next stop: 80km (around 1 hour)
Brisbane is a great city in that it’s got so much going on, it’s well located on the east coast and it’s also huge! You won’t be bored here, whether you’ve got 1 day or 1 week to enjoy it.
If you are running low on food, you forgot to bring some handy items for your van or you just want to replace some of your backpacker clothes, it’s a good idea to visit a city with well-known brands and competitive prices.
Trying to buy things in a small town is just going to eat huge chunks into your budget, so try waiting until you get to Brisbane. The Queen Street Mall has everything you’ll want and more, and you can wander along the river when you’re done.
Take a trip to the Botanic Gardens, visit the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art or climb the famous Story Bridge!
If you’re celebrating a birthday, anniversary or just want an excuse to splash out on dinner, then I highly recommend Corbett & Claude.
It’s a gorgeous Italian place where the buffet is slightly different from what most people are used to – in that they actually bring you one of everything from the menu!
There are no tiny sample sizes here either – everything comes full size (the pizza toppings are split half and half) and the food is an absolute dream!
Distance until next stop: 75 minute ferry journey
This quiet little island is perfect for a short getaway from the mainland. There’s so much to explore and discover, from underwater wildlife to huge sand dunes that you can whizz down.
You can camp on the beach (make sure you book your camping permit first) or rent a holiday bungalow. Don’t forget that there are basically no roads on the island so you need a 4WD if you want to drive her. You can hire one or get a permit for your own vehicle.
There’s so much to do here, you can easily forget that you’re on a small island!
Try your hand at fishing, go whale watching (between 14,000 and 16,000 humpbacks are expected to pass Moreton so you can almost guarantee a sighting!), toboggan down the sand dunes, dive the nearby wrecks., go surfing and watch out for the local birds.
You won’t be disappointed with a stay here!
Distance until next stop: 75 minute ferry journey back to the mainland, then 105km (around 1 hour 20)
This part of the east coast is perfect for hippies and free spirits alike! Not only is the name just begging you to visit, but the towns, beaches and gardens and gorgeously laid-back, serene and enchanting!
Eumundi is a cute town with fun weekend markets to explore (stay at Eumundi RV Stop Over if you have a van!), and then make your way up to Noosa Heads for quiet sandy beaches and local boutiques and cafes.
Don’t miss: Eumundi Markets | Noosa National Park
Distance until next stop: 270km (around 5 hours)
The famous Fraser Island is perfect for a 4WD adventure, exploring endless beaches and swimming in the gorgeous lakes. There’s plenty of wildlife around (you might spot your first dingo or even whale!) and the rainforest is an absolute dream to walk through.
You can drive your own car onto the island if you have a 4WD, or you can hire one before you get to the island and explore yourself.
Another option is just to jump on a tour where you can drive the car for a bit and then hand over to the professionals whilst you enjoy the scenery!
Distance until next stop: 180km (around 4 hours)
You can’t visit this part of Australia and not taste their famous Bundy rum! You will have seen the garish yellow bottles on the shelf in every pub, bar and club, so now’s the time to find out where it comes from and treat yourself to a tasting or two.
The distillery lies in the northeast of the town and is easy to get to whether you’re driving or riding the bus.
Explore the museum and learn all about the history of the local area, and then be guided round the working factory where you can peek into the HUGE molasses vat, hear about how the drink is distilled and fermented, then view the barrels where the magic happens! Last but not least, you’ll be left to your own devices in the bar where you can pick 2 samples to try!
If you’re a true rum lover, you can even blend your own (for an extra cost). Click here for a 5% discount if you book online.
Distance until next stop: 770km (around 8 and a half hours)
Spend at least 4 days in Airlie Beach – including a trip to the Whitsundays! There are some amazing boutiques and markets where you can buy unique souvenirs, jewellery and local artwork. You’ll find plenty of gorgeous cafes and restaurants along the water.
You can almost always find live music to listen to whilst you enjoy an alfresco dinner too.
If you fancy getting back to nature, take a drive up to Cedar Creek Falls and take a dip in the gorgeous waters!
Don’t miss: Airlie Beach Tandem Skydive
Distance until next stop: 60 minute ferry to Hamilton Island
Fancy a little sailing adventure? The Whitsundays are the perfect place to relax on the gorgeous sandy beaches or unwind on a sailboat. Snorkel, dive, hike, fly, or golf – there is so much to see and do!
Hamilton Island is a popular choice, or if you’re looking for pristine white sand then head on over to Whitehaven Beach.
Or, if you haven’t got the time or funds for a long stay, take a day trip from the mainland and cram everything in throughout one day.
Distance until next stop: From the mainland – 275km (around 3 hours 10)
There isn’t a great deal to do here – but it’s the gateway to the next island adventure so find a place to stay the night and be ready to jump on a boat early the next morning! If you need a bit of a break from driving and action, then you could stay 1 more night.
There are gardens to walk around, shopping centres to browse and beaches to sunbathe on, so if you’re looking for some wind-down time then this is a good place to do that.
You can park your vehicle at the ferry port before you make your way over to Magnetic Island so you might want to stay a night and then get to the port early in the morning t make the most of your time there.
Don’t miss: Scenic Half-Day City Tour
Distance until next stop: 25 – 40 minutes by ferry
This is a great place to learn how to dive! Book a 5-night stay and spend 3 of your days in the water, wetsuited- and air tanked-up!
We chose to learn with Pleasure Divers. I had a bad experience in the water but the company were fantastic in their support – even refunding me some of the money as I didn’t complete the course. I didn’t expect that and I think it was a really kind thing to do so I would recommend them again in a heartbeat.
Kev passed with flying colours and despite the low visibility due to the weather, he had a great time with the guide and two other divers.
There are plenty of cafes, bars and restaurants on the island to keep you full and entertained even if you don’t want to spend time in the water.
Don’t miss: Koala trail | Snorkelling Discovery
Distance until next stop: From the mainland – 235km (around 2 hours 45)
This quaint beachside region is full of affordable accommodation, tasty food and awesome things to do. You can access the Great Barrier Reef from here, as well as the Wet Tropics.
Spot a cassowary (a gigantic flightless bird that you need to be careful to avoid on the roads!), wander around the many markets supporting local businesses or spend a day exploring the fascinating Paronella Park.
Don’t miss: Paronella Park
Distance until next stop: 145km (around 1 hour 50)
If you want to surround yourself with gushing waterfalls, breathtaking mountains, fascinating wildlife and peaceful hot springs, then you’ve come to the right place. You can even search for gemstones (you’ll need to buy a licence)
The Tablelands aren’t on the typical backpacker’s trail along the coast, but you’ll be missing out on some stunning locations if you pass straight by!
Explore rivers by day and rainforests by night. Try the local food and wine or even discover the region by helicopter!
Distance until next stop: 80km (around 1 hour 20)
An unexpectedly small city, Cairns is the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef and is just the perfect place to end your east coast road trip. There are lots of backpackers around because there is so much to do, plus hostels are cheap and parties are common!
Book yourself onto a boat tour to explore the Reef – go diving or snorkelling (or both) and discover what lies underneath the gorgeous blue waters. Or, if you’re looking for an adrenaline rush, go high and take a small plane or helicopter flight over the ocean for the most incredible views!
If you have a vehicle, take the short drive to the beautiful and peaceful Crystal Cascades – a set of freshwater waterfalls and pools in the Baron Gorge National Park. Take a dip but be careful around the rocky edges and slippery floor.
Nearby Kurunda village is a dream to journey through- it’s a World Heritage listed area and you should definitely take a day trip to explore the markets, wildlife parks and glorious views from the Scenic Railway.
There are also some super cool day or short overnight trips from Cairns that you don’t need your own transport for:
This idyllic island is a must on your road trip itinerary. Just a short 45 minute trip from the mainland will take you to Fitzroy, where you can spend just the day or escape into one of the stunning accommodation options for a few days.
Most of the island in part of a National Park so if you’re into hiking and exploring pretty tracks, beaches and scenic viewpoints then this is the perfect place for you.
You can even get involved with the turtle conservation work being carried out on the island.
Don’t miss: Full-Day Adventure including Ferry Journey
Stay here: Fitzroy Island Resort
Getting from Cairns to Port Douglas and through the Daintree onto Cape Tribulation is really easy and the views from the road are INSANE. Called the Great Barrier Reef Drive, and as part of the Captain Cook Highway, the winding journey will leave you speechless.
Make sure to stop at a beach or two – in the low season (June – August) you might find that you’ll be the only ones there!
Once you reach Port Douglas, you’ll be greeted with chic boutiques, swish restaurants and swanky hotels.
That’s not to say it’s not a place for backpackers or those on a budget too – there are caravans parks, local pubs and gorgeous free beach walks to enjoy. Don’t forget the Sunday markets too!
If you haven’t already, take a boat tour out onto the reef and be awed by the natural beauty of Far North Queensland.
Daintree + Cape Tribulation
You can’t miss an opportunity to visit the oldest living rainforest in the world – it’s around 135 million years old!
Whether you want to cruise along the river watching out for the famous saltwater crocodiles or take a guided walk conducted by the local indigenous people to learn about their history, culture and relationship with the rainforest, you can be sure that you’ll be left with some incredible memories.
Getting From Sydney To Cairns: Car, Camper or Bus?
Do you have a driving licence? Are you travelling solo or as a couple? Do you have a time limit? All of these are questions you need to ask yourself before deciding on how to get from Sydney to Cairns.
Here are the pros and cons of each!
A car is a good way to get around Australia, as you can pick up a second hand one for quite cheap, or you can rent one from a company. Having a car is easy because you can just drive away from your accommodation and move on to your next destination with no hassle.
However, you will still have to find hostels and hotels along the way because I don’t recommend sleeping in your car! It might save you money, but you’ll still need to pay for campsites, and you will literally be SO SQUASHED AND UNCOMFORTABLE.
I cannot understand any single person, however small you are, preferring living in a car over a camper van.
Another option is to tow a caravan or camper trailer. These are handy because they give you plenty of space, plus you can easily unhook and drive around town if you need to without dragging your whole home with you. You’ll burn through more fuel the heavier your load is though.
This is the best option for the east coast in my opinion. You’ll have a living space, kitchen and bedroom all in one, without having to sleep with your head in a saucepan. You’ll have power, probably a proper fridge and a full size bed.
They’re easy to drive and if you rent one, you don’t have to worry too much about the engine going wrong because your rental company will help you out.
When we sold our car and caravan setup, we hired a camper from Travellers Autobarn. It had already driven over 600,000km – insane – but we had absolutely zero problems with it.
If you can’t drive, then this is obviously your best option. I would avoid the package tickets though because if your plans change, you don’t want to be forking out for a new bus seat. There are flexible passes that give you between 15 and 120 travel days.
Buy your Greyhound tickets here.
Sydney To Cairns Road Trip Budget
An important thing you’ll need to work out is how much money you’ll need for your adventure. It can be daunting, planning out 2 months worth of budget, but it’s easier if you break it down into sections.
Buying food in Australia can be expensive, but if you’re smart about it you can eat well for cheap.
Obviously, the more you can cook for yourself with food from supermarkets, the less money you’ll spend. But remember that you are on holiday, so treat yourself every so often to a pub meal or even a takeaway pizza!
We love cooking but sometimes we felt that we were restricting ourselves so much to save money that we weren’t enjoying ourselves as much as we should have been. Plan a night that you’ll eat out and stick to your budget for the rest of the week so you don’t feel guilty about splurging.
We had a budget of $80 per week on food, and on one occasion we went over by 17 cents! The lady behind us heard us discussing how close we had been, and then ran after us in the car park to give us the 17 cents so that we didn’t break our budget! We thought it was so cute!
A good idea is to reduce your meat intake, or cut it out completely which is what we did. Not only will you spend less money on food, but you won’t have to worry about meat going off in your camper fridge. Plus, it means you’ll have more space because the chances are you’ll be limited on that, however you’re storing your food!
We made meals like chilli, burritos, curry, pasta and risotto without meat, and without compromising on flavour or being full. Download the Tasty app for quick, tasty veggie meals, or just do some creating of your own!
If you plan to work in Australia first, it means that you’ll have a fixed address. As soon as you find a job, order yourself a Woolworth’s rewards card.
Every time you scan the card when you’ve shopped at Woolies or bought fuel at Caltex, you earn 1 point for each $1.
You can then redeem the points on your shopping, plus you get discounts on fuel! It’s a win-win and the benefits really do add up when you’re driving so far!
Recommended budget for 1 week: $80
This is something that you can’t avoid – even if you’re getting on a bus you’re still paying for your ticket so that is included in this section.
Fuel costs are going to be dependant on a couple of things so no two road trips will ever cost the same. You have to take into consideration things like engine size, whether you’re using petrol or diesel, how far you go each day, whether you’re towing and the locations of the fuel stations you fill up in.
Download Fuel Map to keep track of what you buy, plus you can scout out the cheapest petrol stations in your area. It will also help you plan your fuel stops because you can see if you have enough kms in the tank to get you to the next station.
Don’t forget to use your Woolworths’ reward card to top-up your points, plus look out for the 4 cent discount on the receipts from the supermarket.
If you have cruise control, use it when you can to save a little energy. The air conditioner unit also can speed up your fuel usage so only use it when you really need to!
Recommended budget for 1 week: It’s impossible to give this type of estimate as we don’t know where you’ll be going or how many kilometres you’ll be travelling per week! Budget $150 per week and then adjust as you and your vehicle see fit!
How much you spend here will depend on not only your comfort level, but on your vehicle choice too. When we made our way up the east coast, we were towing a caravan. This meant that we needed to find a powered (unpowered if we really had to) campsite with space for a car and a 15 foot house on wheels!
We didn’t have to find hostels or hotels, but it did mean that we were limited to places that didn’t require kms of driving off-road to get there.
We gave ourselves a limit of $20 per night between us, but this would often be split because sometimes we were able to camp for free and sometimes we needed to spend more. The accommodation that I recommended above is based on a 1 night stay for 2 people and I have given options for both hostel/hotels and caravan park! Don’t forget that you’ll spend more on accommodation if you don’t have a vehicle, but potentially less on transport.
Remember that costs change during the different seasons, plus you can sometimes get a discount in caravan parks if you stay a certain amount of days.
I have recommended some places to stay, but if you’re looking for free or super low budget campsites then take a look at this article. It will give you everything you need to know about free camping in Australia and how to find the best spots.
Recommended budget for 1 week: $140 for 2 people
Fun Tours and Activities
This is completely up to you. You might want to spend all of your money on an awesome Whitsundays adventure, or maybe you’d prefer to beach hop for free on the mainland. There are hundreds of cool tours you can take along the east coast – not all of them are expensive either.
Do your research though because if you have your own vehicle and you’re already in a group or pair, a lot of the tours can be done without a company. See what they are offering and work out if it would be more cost-effective or fun to do it yourself!
If you are taking public transport up the coast, then you’re more likely to need to rely on tour companies. That’s not a bad thing though – they can save you time and money, plus you’re bound to meet people doing the same thing you are!
Here are 3 of the most popular tours you can take along the east coast!
Always, always keep some money spare for emergency car repairs, unexpected doctor’s visits and the times when you just can’t turn down the opportunity for something you didn’t budget for! All of these things happened to us, and whilst we weren’t exactly prepared, we were able to cover the costs because we saved back any extra dollars whenever we could!
If you’re from an eligible country, you can and should apply for a Medicare card. It allows you to get doctor’s + hospital visits for a much cheaper price (or in some cases, free) because you are entitled to the same kind of care that Australian nationals are.
Make this the very first thing you do! Read more about the system on the official website here.
Obviously still get travel insurance because that will cover you for things outside of the medical sector too.
World Nomads is a good choice for travellers as you can buy their policies whilst you’re already abroad. you can change your policy easily and their customer service is great.
This jam-packed Sydney to Cairns road trip is such an awesome journey to experience whilst in Australia.
You’ll get to see so much of what this beautiful country has to offer – famous bustling cities, tiny friendly towns, perfect islands, tropical jungles -and don’t forget whatever you discover when you leave land and enter the deep blue!
Frequently Asked Questions
How long does it take to drive from Sydney to Cairns?
If you were to drive non-stop, it would take around 26 hours. That would be an insanely boring (and impossible) road trip though, so if you were to break it down, spending decent amounts of time in each destination then we would recommend at least 3 weeks.
You could easily spend 8 weeks on this trip though – giving yourself enough time for driving days, wind down days and beach days, as well as all of the fun activities you’re going to want to enjoy!
Can you take the train from Sydney to Cairns?
There are train stations in both cities, so yes you could, but not directly.
If you want to get on a train at Sydney and then hop off at a couple of stops then that’s easily done – when you get to Brisbane you can then find the train that works it way up towards Cairns via Rockhampton and Townsville.
I don’t think getting the train is a great way to see Australia – driving or even getting the Greyhound is better – but there is the option if you need it.
Where is the nearest city to the Great Barrier Reef?
The Great Barrier Reef lies close to the coastline from around Bundaberg all the way up to Cape York.
You can’t necessarily take trips there from all of those towns though – so we recommend making your way up to Cairns or Port Douglass if you want to get up close and personal with the reef.
When is the best time to do a road trip from Sydney to Cairns?
To get the best weather in both states, I would recommend going between May and October.
That’s the Australian winter and although it might seem mad to spend time on the coast during the coldest months of the year, you really can’t go wrong as the weather in Queensland is beautiful at this time of year.
The top of New South Wales won’t be blistering cold and as you travel north you’ll be treated to blue skies, warm days and less rain.
If you decide to go at any other time of the year, you run the risk of reaching Queensland in the wet season – think humid air, crazy storms and dangerous animals coming out to play! The dry season is safer and there will still be plenty of waterfalls gushing along!
You might not stop in every city or attraction, but this guide has shown you the best of the best. Let us know if you have any questions about planning your adventure and we’ll be more than happy to answer them!