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Cairns, Australia is an exciting destination boasting an incredible coastline, entertaining attractions and some of the best natural wonders of the world. Visitors should have no trouble finding fun things to do in Cairns, Australia. That said, travelers heading to Cairns on a budget need to dig a little deeper and get a little creative.
To help fellow budget-conscious travelers, we are highlighting the best cheap Cairns activities – and money-saving tips on how to visit the most popular sights.
Things To Do in Cairns on a Budget
Australia was, at one time, considered a budget destination…but that is just no longer the case. Many of the top attractions in Cairns cost a pretty penny.
However, we believe that every place can be visited on a budget and Cairns, Australia is no exception.
Even if it is a jumping off point to numerous expensive activities, there are many things to do in Cairns, Australia on a budget while still experiencing the main attractions.
During our visit, we came up with a budget plan for Australia that enabled us to experience the best Cairns attractions…and not go broke!
Pro Tip: Budget is a relative term; what is cheap to one person might be expensive to someone else. To make our list as robust as possible, we feature an array of activities that cover a range of prices – and offer tips on how to manage your Australia vacation budget and still have fun.
The Best Things To Do in Cairns, Australia
There are some Cairns attractions and activities – like the Great Barrier Reef – that should be on every Cairns Itinerary, even if it requires stretching the budget. While there are not many things to do in Cairns for free, we’ve created a Cairns to do list that highlights some of the best Cairns activity deals for travelers on a budget.
We have also included a Cairns map at the end of the post to help guide you on your holiday in Tropical North Queensland, Australia.
Save, Pin or Bookmark this Cairns blog post so that you can use it while planning your trip to Australia!
#1 Snorkel The Great Barrier Reef
The Great Barrier Reef is easily reached from Cairns. In fact, the UNESCO World Heritage listed natural attraction is what lures many travelers to visit the city.
On our trip, we considered snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef a Cairns must – it is the top thing to do in Cairns, after all. However, Great Barrier Reef day trips are not cheap activities in Cairns – so we made it our goal to seek out an affordable way to experience it.
Cheap Great Barrier Reef Trips from Cairns
Our first mission when we got to Cairns was to walk the docks and check prices for Great Barrier Reef cruises in person, hoping to score a better deal than we had found online.
On the docks, we found Cairns reef tours provided by Compass Cruises for just $115 AUS (which was a little more expensive than the cheapest snorkeling option we found online).
It wasn’t the fastest boat (what’s the hurry?), but it had a fun crew, relaxed atmosphere and good snorkeling gear. We made two outer reef snorkeling stops, ate a delicious lunch and snacked on cheese while sipping (carton) wine on the cruise back to shore. For cheap Great Barrier Reef tours, Compass Cruises surpassed our expectations. Read about our entire experience here.
Most Affordable Boat Tours to Great Barrier Reef
The Great Barrier Reef is one of the top things to see in Cairns – and every traveler should be able to witness the abundant marine life.
It just so happens that budget travelers have two great options when it comes to snorkeling GBR: Green Island and Fitzroy Island.
The Great Barrier Reef Green Island Day Trips are less expensive (see prices here) – as is the day trip to Fitzroy Island. Because they eliminate the on-board lunch and other amenities, both of these Cairns sightseeing tours are a great fit for travelers on a budget.
Participants get to enjoy the Great Barrier Reef scenic tour – plus snorkel and hike – at a fraction of the price of other tours.
Finding the Best Reef Cruises in Cairns
That said, there are other Great Barrier Reef tours that cost only slightly more…and, perhaps, offer better amenities.
For example, the Great Barrier Reef Pontoon is an excellent option for families. Although slightly more expensive than other Cairns cruises, the Pontoon features a safe place to snorkel – plus a slide, underwater observatory and touch tank. Find out more!
Other more expensive Great Barrier Reef snorkeling tours will likely have better amenities than the cruise we took. For example, they have faster boats, maybe a shrimp and steak lunch, the added benefit of included wet suits and, perhaps, wine that doesn’t come from a box.
Top Tip: More interested in Cairns scuba diving? You can scuba dive from many of the affordable Cairns snorkel boat cruises for an additional upgrade fee.
Start your research by looking at the highly-rated snorkel cruises (offered in a range of prices) on Viator.
#2 Explore Kuranda
Kuranda, a village in the rain forest, is rich with Australian history and one of the best day trips from Cairns. Originally home to the native Djabugay people, the land developed into a town in the 1880s with the introduction of logging, mining and railroads.
As early as the 1930s, tourists were escaping the heat and humidity of Cairns for the cool mountain air. Tourism expanded in the 1970s when it became a retreat for free-spirited hippies to sell their homemade wares.
Getting To Kuranda…While Staying On Budget
There are two main – and entertaining – options for getting to Kuranda without a car: the Skyrail Cairns gondola and the Kuranda Railway. However, neither the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway nor the historic Railway are cheap things to do in Cairns.
A combo deal Skyrail up, Railway down – offers savings and is touted as a Cairns discount tour, but the price is still pretty steep.
We thought, without a car, that we were priced out of the round-trip Cairns excursions to Kuranda. However, our persistent research yielded one of the little-known Cairns deals: a Kuranda Coach/Train combo that allowed us to ride up on a bus and take the classic Kuranda train down… and it was priced at a fraction of the Skyrail/Train Combo cost.
Things To Do in Kuranda
Once in the Tropical North Queensland rain forest, there is a long list of things to do in Kuranda, which includes everything from shopping at the Kuranda Markets to riverboat cruises to getting up close and personal with koalas.
However, most of these activities didn’t jive with our Cairns budget. We browsed the shops but skipped on paying pricey entrance fees into any of the exhibits.
Note: The Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park was once a top attraction, but it is now permanently closed.
Free Things To Do: Kuranda Walking Trails
During our budget trip to Kuranda, we were more interested in tapping into the natural side of the town. A connection of easy walking trails circuit around town taking visitors through lush rainforest and along the banks of the Barron River.
We set out on the Jumrum Walk, which was shrouded in silence and solitude and then continued on the Jungle Walk, a section of rainforest that featured vines hanging down like Tarzan ropes. The last section of the circuit, the River Walk, led us along the wide, lazy river that tumbles downstream to the Barron Falls Gorge.
Top Tip: We saved even more money by bringing a picnic lunch with us. We found a lovely riverside spot where we dined on inexpensive sandwiches and fresh fruit that we purchased at the grocery store in Cairns.
Kuranda Scenic Railway
We were skeptical about whether we made the right decision to extend our budget to include the Kuranda train. As it turned out, the railway proved to be an excellent value for the experience. The train meanders through the Barron Gorge National Park, clinging to the side of the mountain for the two-hour journey. Passengers sit in original, creaky wooden cars for the 37km ride.
Shortly after departing Kuranda Station, there is a 15-minute stop at Barron Falls, where they allow passengers to disembark to take in the views from various platforms. The train then continues down the mountain through 15 tunnels, across 55 bridges and around 98 curves, passing more waterfalls and scenic outlooks along the way.
Book the Kuranda Coach/Railway Combo now!
Cheap Kuranda Tour
Another less expensive option – that includes heaps of extras – is the full-day tour by bus. For travelers who want a guided tour in Kuranda, but are less interested in the skyrail and railway, it’s the best value for money.
The Kuranda bus tours include hotel pick up in Cairns, a journey (and duck boat ride) through the Reforestation Nature Park, boomerang throwing and an aboriginal dance performance. Get the price here!
#3 Seek Out Cairns Happy Hours
Like the rest of Australia, drinking a pint or two at a pub is not a budget Cairns activity – but it is a fun way to cap off a day of sightseeing and adventure. Thank goodness for happy hours!
Unfortunately, most of the bars in Cairns like to keep their happy hours secret, so we had to ask at each bar to get the details on Cairns specials for beer and cocktails – and we suggest you do the same if you want to keep your budget in check!
That said, two of the city’s best watering holes – Rattle N Hum and The Woolshed – offer daily happy hour from 5-7pm. Rattle N Hum has the best deal with $9 jugs and 20% off pizzas and main meals; The Woolshed had pints (actual pints!) discounted to $6 and rotating afternoon food specials, like a jug and pizza for $20.
Top Tip: Happy Hour specials constantly change, always ask for current specials during your visit to Cairns.
#4 Walking and Hiking in Cairns, Australia
Looking for free things to do in Cairns? Hit the hiking trails without spending a dime! There are numerous places in the city to stretch your legs and take in the views. In our opinion, the three best spots are Mount Whitfield, the Cairns Botanical Gardens and the Cairns Esplanade…and they are all free!
Mount Whitfield Blue and Red Arrow Trails
Although Mount Whitfield sits in plain sight, the hiking trails are one of the Cairns hidden gems.
Mount Whitfield and has two excellent and challenging hiking trails: Red Arrow and Blue Arrow – and they are easy to access, as it is just a 5km bus ride from town (more about Cairns public transport below).
The interlinking circuits make the round-trip hike about 7km, gaining an altitude of about 325m. Both trails work their way through rainforest to scenic lookouts, making it one of our favorite free things in Cairns.
Hiking the Red and Blue Arrow Tracks
The Red Arrow Trail ascends quickly, with the use of stairs, taking hikers through bamboo and to an overgrown lookout point. Just beyond the lookout point, the Blue Arrow Track splits off to the right and leads to a second lookout point with a clear view of the airport runway and Coral Sea (a favored lookout point for aviation geeks!).
After the lookout, the trail is enveloped in shaded rainforest. The path winds around a deep gorge, over streams and through gnarled tree roots. A secondary trail breaks off and leads to the Lumley Hill scenic viewpoint (which is a perfect spot for a picnic lunch). The return trip continues along the looping trail – and is completed much more quickly, as it is mostly downhill.
During our mid-day, mid-week hike in Cairns, we encountered few other trekkers. We did, however, see a bit of wildlife, including brush turkeys, cockatoos and wallabies. Trail map.
Cairns Botanical Garden
For a less challenging walk, and one of the top things to do in Cairns on a budget, stroll the Cairns Botanic Gardens. There are several easy walking paths through beautiful floral landscapes that are completely free to enter.
There are multiple spaces to explore at the park; each section featuring different kinds of plants. The main garden, Flecker Garden, has intertwining paths that weave through an astounding array of flora and fauna from around the world. Unique and exotic blossoms are a splash of bright color in this part of the park.
The Centenary Lakes – of which one is saltwater and the other is freshwater – are a wonderful spot for a stroll. Covered in lily pads, the ponds attract ducks, pelicans and even crocodiles. Also on-site is the Tanks Art Center. Old naval oil tanks from World War II have been repurposed into art galleries, which are an interesting addition to the gardens.
Our favorite part of the Cairns Botanic Gardens, however, is the shaded Rainforest Walk. A raised boardwalk meanders through trees, vines and swampland with a thick, high canopy overhead. On the forest floor, we encountered brush turkeys, a variety of lizards and river turtles.
Although there aren’t sandy beaches in Cairns, the shoreline can still be enjoyed! The Esplanade – a shared walking/biking path – stretches for miles along the coastline. Walking along the Esplanade is one of the fabulous Cairns free things to do – all while taking in the sea view.
#5 Visit Cairns Beaches
As we already mentioned, there are no true Cairns beaches within the city limits. However, just to the north there are multiple beach communities – often called Cairns Northern Beaches – that are absolutely stunning. Best of all these beaches can be reached by bus for about $10 round trip. Once in the beach towns, accessing the beaches costs nothing at all!
Spending a day at a beach is one of the fun things to do in Cairns!
While there are several beaches to choose from, we opted for the locals’ favorite: Trinity Beach. Other nearby – and easily accessible beaches – include Palm Cove, Yorkeys Knob, Holloways Beach and Machans Beach.
Alternatively, you can travel even further north to the famous Four Mile Beach in Port Douglas.
Trinity Beach, Australia
Nestled between two rocky headlands, Trinity Beach is a long, crescent-moon shaped stretch of sand. A shaded walkway lined with tropical plants, BBQs, picnic tables and benches extend the length of the beach and beyond. To the south is a rocky lookout point and on the north are stairs leading to a wooded path and elevated panoramic view of the beach below.
During our visit to Trinity Beach, the wind was howling, churning up the otherwise blue waters, but we found refuge on the southern edge of the beach near the rocks. We stretched out on the sand, relishing the sun’s rays and cool wind at they combined for lovely seaside temps. I buried my toes in the sand and settled in with a good book while Kris swam in the salty waves. Beach fix complete…all for the cost of a bus ticket!
#6 Chill Out at The Cairns Lagoon
The Cairns Esplanade Lagoon is one of the top free activities in Cairns. The public pool with its sandy edge sits right in the center of Cairns on the Esplanade shoreline. Surrounding the swimming pool is a spacious park that features multiple free-to-use BBQ grills.
Ideal for gatherings and family outings (seriously, the Cairns Lagoon is one of the best things to do in Cairns with kids), both visitors and locals flock to use the great outdoor space.
Often on weekends, live bands provide free Cairns entertainment in the park. And, as a bonus, the City of Cairns provides free, speedy Wi-Fi in the area around the lagoon (which you can use to look up even more free stuff to do in Cairns!).
Of course, it is Australia, so there are heaps of rules – like no drinking alcohol or playing catch in the pool, so make sure to follow the guidelines so you can enjoy it!
Top Tip: Cheap eats in Cairns are hard to come by, but you can create a filling (and healthy!) budget meal by getting groceries at the store (we recommend Woolworths). Even without a kitchen in your accommodations, you can utilize the BBQ grills at the park to make a feast!
#7 Eat Cheap at the Cairns Night Markets
Wondering what to do in Cairns at night for cheap? Go to the Cairns Markets!
The night market is one of the fun and budget-worthy attractions in Cairns. In the food court, visitors can find budget fare – like inexpensive Asian street food. Visitors can also find low-cost massages and loads of cheap souvenirs at the market.
Pro Tip: Rusty’s Markets is another must do Cairns’ market! The weekend market features local produce – and shoppers can get the best bargains on Sunday afternoon when they markdown the goods before market closes.
#8 Visit the Cairns Art Gallery
The Cairns Art Gallery is a must do in Cairns. Whether you are looking for culture, escaping the weather or just a budget traveler searching for activities, the gallery fits the fits the bill – as it is complete free to enter!
Housed in a historic building, the gallery features a rotating collection of artwork from Australian artists – including contemporary paintings and indigenous works. Visitors could easily spend a few hours contemplating the art – so be sure to add the Art Gallery to your Cairns itinerary!
Cairns, Australia Map
Our map of Cairns highlights the top free things to do to add to your Cairns itinerary. Use this link to Google Maps for an interactive, online version of our Cairns Map. You can also use our free Cairns printable map.
More Cairns Things To Do
Our list of Things To Do Cairns features top activities at budget prices – but there is more to see and do in the city! Visitors who can find room in their trip budget may want to add one or two of the day trips or ticketed attractions to their to-do list.
We are highlighting a few of the top attractions – as well as tips on how you can save money when you visit them.
Saving Money on Cairns Tours
Cairns day trips are expensive – but for many visitors they are essential Cairns experiences.
Travelers who want to partake in all the top Cairns tourist attractions – the Great Barrier Reef, Kuranda Skyrail and the historic Railway – can save money by bundling the Cairns attractions into a single, lower-priced combo ticket.
Things To Do from Cairns: Day Trip Tours
While it can be difficult to find cheap day trips in Cairns, there are a few popular Cairns tours that you might want to squeeze into your budget. We recommend finding a tour that offers the best value for money. Highly-rated tours from Cairns can be booked at ‘Lowest Price Guarantee’ on Viator.
Millaa Millaa Falls at Atherton Tablelands
Explore the natural wonderland of the wet tropics rainforest – a UNESCO listed attraction – on a full day tour from Cairns to the beautiful Atherton Tablelands.
Along the route, stop for photo ops, visit Lake Barrine, journey through Curtain Fig National Park and see the magnificent Millaa Millaa Waterfall. Find out more!
Cape Tribulation and Daintree Rainforest National Park Day Tour
Participants on this 12-hour value tour are treated to a full day of spectacular nature in Far North Queensland.
Travel north from Cairns, past Port Douglas to Mossman Gorge, where participants can take part in a traditional Smoke Ceremony and swim in the gorge’s green waters. Next, travel along the Daintree River by cruise and through the Daintree National Park to Cape Tribulation.
Lunch is provided at the Ferntree Rainforest Hotel (and included in the cost of the tour) before guests have free time on the beach. Explore the rainforest on a guided walk, then cool off with a local ice cream treat. End the day on a fabulous vista – Mount Alexandra Lookout – and then relax in the coach on the way back to Cairns. Get The Details!
DIY Day Tours from Cairns
Ticketed Activities in Cairns
Some of the top Cairns activities require (expensive) ticketed entry. However, we have a few tips that might still help you save money on these attractions!
A must see Cairns attraction, the Aquarium is a fascinating place to visit. Featuring an astounding array of marine life, guests get an informative and fun interactive experience! Ticket prices are steep, but families can save money with the budget-priced Family Pass (get it here!). Couples can pair an Evening at the Aquarium with an appetizer and drink from the onsite restaurants. Get the details!
Cairns Zoom and Wildlife Dome
Visiting the Zoom and Wildlife Dome is one of the more unusual things to do in Cairns. Highlighted by high-action fun, Zoom is one of the top things to do in Cairns with kids.
Budget travelers can tailor their experience – and only pay for the activities at the park that they want to see. Plus, the ticket can be bundled with other area attractions for a super saver price. Find the ticket best suited to you!
Cairns Sightseeing Tips
The Cairns Tourist Information Office and reception at hostels are great resources for finding other tips on free and cheap things to do in Cairns. For a list of community events and other Cairns activities, check out what’s on in Cairns at Cairns Events or take a look a the Cairns Region Council calendar.
Cairns Travel Tips
We have detailed our favorite things to do around Cairns on a budget – so you should be well on your way to planning your Cairns trip! To aid in the process, we have a few more money-saving tips for when you visit Cairns.
Planning a Trip to Cairns
There is a lot of research that goes into planning a Cairns trip – and you will need to stay on top of all the details! Use our printable Travel Planner to keep on top of your trip planning!
Travelers planning on visiting other Australian cities can easily plan their entire trip with our travel guides.
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- Hobart, Tasmania Itinerary
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Check out all of our tips, itineraries and walking tours on our Australia Travel Guides Page!
Where To Stay in Cairns, Australia
During our visit to Cairns, we stayed in an affordable Airbnb Apartment on the outskirts of town that fit into our budget.
We have found that staying in apartments is often less expensive than hotel rooms – with the added benefit of a kitchen and, usually, more space.
While we enjoyed the apartment, we thought it was too far from most places to visit in Cairns. In hindsight, we should have paid a little more to stay somewhere closer to central Cairns or opted for a budget hostel stay. We think the best place to stay in Cairns is near the city center – and there are many reasonable options on both Airbnb and Booking.com.
Before you start searching for Cairns accommodations, use our tips for Finding the Best Hotels for Cheap!
Cairns Budget Accommodations
For budget travelers, the best places to stay in Cairns, Australia are backpacker Hostels. We recommend looking for hostels that also provide meal deals and other perks.
If it fits in your budget, there are some Cairns Hotels to choose from in – or close to – the city center that are priced around $100 USD/night.
Start your search for the best Cairns hostels and hotels on Booking.com!
How To Get to Cairns, Australia
Transportation in Cairns: Public Buses
Cairns buses may not be all that frequent, but Cairns Public Transport is efficient both in cost and in routes. Visitors can purchase All Day and Weekly tickets to save some money, as well.
Priced on the number of zone crossings, an all-day ticket from our suburban dwelling 5km to the city costs about $6 USD. We’ve found the key to making it work is to check the schedule in advance. Most buses only run every half hour and on the weekend only every hour and a half.
Bike Rentals in Cairns
Active visitors might also find it to be cost effective to rent a bike to get around Cairns.
We checked into weekly bike rentals – as we think it would have been great to get around on two wheels. Unfortunately, we were disappointed to find the cost averaged out to more per day than the all-day bus ticket – so, with the convenient route near our accommodations, we stuck with the bus.
What To Pack for Your Cairns Trip
You are almost ready to go to Cairns, Australia – you just need to pack! We are highlighting a few must-have items, but you can find all of our advice on our Packing Tips blog page. You can also get your FREE Packing Checklist here!
The Right Shoes
In addition to flip flops, don’t forget to pack a pair of lightweight and comfortable travel shoes for your trip (especially if you are heading to Kuranda or other rainforest destinations). I am most comfortable in lightweight and versatile sneakers – and Kris wears Merrells for everyday travel.
We’re certain you’ll be snapping tons of photos during your trip. Rather than relying on your mobile phone to capture the sights, upgrade to an actual camera for higher quality photos. We travel with a Canon Rebel and use an 18-135mm lens.
Not only does it take amazing photos, but it comes with heaps of accessories – making it one of the best Budget Cameras for Travelers.
Cairns Map, Australia Guidebook and Day Pack
Australia Travel Insurance
We think travel insurance is essential! If you haven’t already obtained travel insurance for your vacation to Australia, travel protected with World Nomads.
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